World famous artworks in the province – how the German small town Wiesbaden became a storage facility for art treasures after World War II
The end of World War II meant a turning point for the field of visual arts. The much-discussed „zero hour“ required a reconstruction of the infrastructure of the German museum landscape: Many buildings which had been shown artworks were damaged or destroyed, „National Socialist pre-loaded“ staff had to be replaced, the collections had to be restructured. The American forces had established for this purpose a special unit of art protection officers, which we today call „Monuments Men“. One of the bases of their activities after the Second World War was within the walls of the Museum Wiesbaden, Germany. In this building the art protection officers installed a so called „Central Collecting Point“ and stored artworks they found in the surrounding repositories. Its story began in the summer of 1945 with the incorporation of works of art which originated in large part from the Berlin museums, from the National Gallery of Art Library, the Graphic Collection, the Egyptian department and other collections. Amongst it was the world famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti which belonged to the Berlin collections. For the following then years this fabulous artwork was on display in this provincial museum – to the delight of its many visitors.
After the World War II about 700,000 works of art have been stored in the rooms of today’s National Museum Wiesbaden, Germany, including the bust of Nefertiti, the Guelph Treasure or the collection of the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. This was due to the „Monuments Men“, an Anglo-American military unit, which it had set itself the task of preserving European culture from the devastating damage of the Second World War. In addition, they were looking for stolen art, for works of art which had been stolen by the Nazis in the occupied territories, especially from the disenfranchised Jews. These artworks the art protectors consolidated in so-called „Central Collecting Points“ (CCPs) – one of which was located in Wiesbaden. The history of this force, officially known as „Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives-Section“ (short: MFA & A), was brought to the attention of a wider public by George Clooney in a Hollywood movie last year.
But the story does not end with the war – on the contrary: the true merit of the Monuments Men only begins with the establishment of the Collecting Point. A mammoth task waited for the staff: all works of art that the Monuments Men found in salt mines, castles, and other repositories were inventoried and proofed for their ownership. In the Wiesbaden Collecting Point all kinds of art objects were stored: paintings, graphic works, sculptures, books, fine furniture and carpets, gold and silver work, and more – mainly German Museum possession, but also looted art was among the stored items.
Art Treasures in a Saltmine
The history of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Points had its origin in the mines of Merkers, where the US Army had discovered large amounts of cultural property – into the Thuringian salt mine the Berlin Museum treasures had been transported shortly before the war ended. The conditions in this depot for the artworks were far from optimal, so that shifting to another place was considered soon. Many reasons argued against a longer stay of the art treasures in the mine: improper storage facilities as well as the packaging in crates made it difficult to overview the contents, the guarding against looting was inadequate, improper packing due to the hasty transportation from Berlin as well as moisture, endangered the art objects from the view of conservation.
In the case of the Merkers discovery comes along the fact that the Reichsbank gold was deposited in the mine as well. As Merkers was located in an area which would become the Russian zone of occupation soon, the gold and art treasures were transported away as soon as possible by the Americans. The city of Frankfurt, home of the headquarters of the 3rd US Army, offered with the building of the Reichsbank a particularly safe accommodation option for both the gold and the art works. There, the art arrived on 26 ten ton trucks on April 17, 1945.
However, these facilities featured no permanently appropriate storage capacity. Although the Bank was considered to be one of the safest buildings in Hesse, however, the sheer amount of artifacts blew up the possibilities of proper storage and further processing with regard to inventory, conservation and restoration, as well as any restitution. Another resettlement of art objects had to be considered.
Up and Running – the Work in the Collecting Point
At this time, Captain Walter I. Farmer, architect in civilian life, started his work as art protection officer and was commissioned to prepare the museum building in neighboring Wiesbaden as a deposit. When Farmer took up this task in June 1945, he first had to look after the evacuation of the building. During the war, the museum had been used by the German Air Force as a machine room.After the war it served Displaced People as accommodation and various US military units as a base, including a special unit of the 12th US Army, which had set up in the museum halls a clothing depot.After the evacuation of the building Farmers next priority lied on the renovation of the premises damaged during the war: The windows and doors were largely destroyed by bomb detonations in the area, as well as the skylights, and the roof was greatly affected by an anti-aircraft installation.
Time was short. Until August, 15 1945, the recovery should be completed, because the first transports from Frankfurt should arrive. War-related material shortages hampered his task. Farmer, however, managed to find the required materials such as windows, barbed wire etc. on abandoned construction sites on time. He worked hard on the restoration of the building, convinced of the importance of his task. From letters to his wife, we learn:
„We are building a new world and want to carry over from the old what is good. (…) Nothing can stop my work. I am constantly afoot, and yet it seems to me as if it were at a snail’s pace.“
In the monthly status report on his work at the CCP Wiesbaden Farmer described on August 3, 1945 the progress of the restoration work on the building: two thirds of the windows were reinstated, within the next ten days the roof would be repaired, the heating would be functional again within the next weeks, the necessary pipe work would have been completed this week and one of the two elevators was already back in action. In addition to repairing the building measurements for the safeguarding of the artworks were taken. The CCP was protected by three American and three German security guards, supplemented by a night watchman, more than Farmers supervisor had actually claimed. The entire building was surrounded by a man high barbed wire and was illuminated at night with search spotlights. There was only one entrance and the access to the building was carried out only with the permission of the Director.
75 rooms of the museum were restored to its pre-war state at the end of August 1945 so that the CCP was able to receive the art objects arriving from Frankfurt from 20 August.
Previously, 80 cases with printed graphic works that had been relocated from the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum had arrived in the CCP. And after the Merkers-transport numerous other cultural objects came to Wiesbaden, which had been discovered by the Monuments Men in the surrounding repositories. Some of the arriving items have been privately owned, such as the collection of the Nazi-art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. However, the majority was German museum possessions stored for safekeeping in hidden repositories: crates with coins from the Düsseldorf City Museum, paintings and prints from the museum in Karlsruhe, the Prussian as well as the Hungarian Royal Treasure (including the Crown of St. Stephen), archival material from Wiesbaden, paintings, sculptures and prints from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, and many more was brought into the building at the Rheinstrasse. The Berlin Museum’s collection, which found their way to Wiesbaden, was very diverse: paintings from the Picture Gallery and the National Gallery, the arts collections of the Castle Museum (Schlossmuseum), tapestries from the „Management of palaces and gardens of Potsdam“ (Verwaltung der Schlösser und Gärten Potsdam), books from the Berlin art library, the collection of antiquities from the Islamic Department, the Museum of Prehistory and the Egyptian department. Among the most famous works of art that were hosted in Wiesbaden, was the „Painted Queen“, the bust of Nefertiti, which was always present in the numerous exhibition at the CCP – to the delight of the audience.
Each of these works of art have been inventoried by the CCP employees, ie recorded on index cards in triplicate, checked on its condition and carefully restored if necessary. The next step was then to find out the respective ownership and return the art works to its rightful owner, which the Monuments Men succeeded for the majority of stocks. For the works of art where this was not possible, the Hessian trust management has assumed responsibility after the occupation. Many works of art from these stocks can still be found as „remainder CCP“ (Restbestand CCP) in the fiduciary custody of the federal government, administered by the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues (Bundesamt für zentrale Dienste und Offene Vermögensfragen, BADV).
Heros for the Cultural Reconstruction
Were the Monuments Men heroes? Today we know that they had made restitution decisions in some cases that we would not made today. However, considering the short period of existence of the CCPs, the scarce equipment especially in terms of human resources, and the sheer amount of art works to be checked, the positive aspects of their work in the collection outweigh in my opinion. They have literally dug through mountains of art and files in Wiesbaden Collecting Point, returned art to the victimized countries and German museums. These works of art can still be seen today in the public collections – the Rembrandts, the Guelphs treasure or Nefertiti, who resided in Wiesbaden, Germany 70 years ago.
 Martin Hildebrand, „Als Nofretete in Wiesbaden war. Zur Geschichte des amerikanischen Central Collecting Points im Museum (Teil 1)“, Wiesbadener Leben: die Monatszeitschrift unserer Stadt, 3 (1995), 28.