The Monuments Men: The 8 Greatest Pieces of Art Saved During World War II

American soldiers recover works of art in Germany. NARA

Popularized by Hollywood in recent years the Monuments Men consisted of scholars from around the world who sought to join the war effort in order to save the world’s priceless works of art. Prior to the U.S. entrance to the war, American art professionals were looking for ways to protect European art and monuments from being stolen the Nazis or from being destroyed during the war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Area.

In 1945, 345 men and women from 13 different countries made up the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit and the group risked their lives to uncover 1,000 hidden troves that held over 5 million pieces of art and culture stolen from people and institutions all over the world. Even after the war, 60 members of the MFAA stayed in Europe to continue tracking down lost treasures.

Monuments Men examining the Ghent Altarpiece.

van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece is a large and complex Early Flemish polyptych altarpiece from the 15th century which is attributed to the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It has long been considered one of the world’s great treasures. The history of the altarpiece has been rife with struggle and danger. Through periods of iconoclasm, it was feared the altarpiece would be destroyed. It has been stolen more than once and one panel called “The Just Judges” has never been recovered. The altarpiece has been damaged by fire and was taken by the Germans during World War I.

All of the known pieces of the altarpiece were returned to Belgium following World War I and a copy of the “The Just Judges” panel was made so the entire altarpiece could be together again. With the outbreak of World War II, there were fears about the safety of the altarpiece and it was packaged up to be shipped to Italy to be kept in the Vatican. However, as the piece was being readied for transport, Italy joined the war on the side of the Axis powers. For the safety of the van Eyck piece, it was kept in a museum in Pau, France, and French, Belgian, and German military representatives signed an agreement that required all three parties to consent before the pieces could be moved.

In 1942, Hitler ordered that the altarpiece be seized and brought to Germany. The Vichy government in France allowed the pieces to be taken to Germany without the consent of Belgium. The head of Germany’s Art Protection Unit was relieved of his position after he protested against the taking of the pieces. Belgian and non-Vichy French authorities protested against the paintings being moved.

Once it reached Germany, the pieces were stored in the Schloss Neuschwanstein castle. When Allied bombings in the area threatened the paintings, they were moved to the Altaussee salt mines. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives members found the paintings and returned them to Belgium in a ceremony that was presided over by the Belgian royal family at the Royal Palace of Brussels.