The Monuments Men

Kelleher with Group, provided by The Monuments Men Foundation

Kelleher with Group, provided by The National Archives and Records Administration.

In the weeks after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, enemy bombing raids on the American mainland became a distinct possibility. Museums and private collectors began to consider how to keep their collections safe in case of invasion. In response to this growing concern, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art served as a repository for a number of the nation’s most important public and private collections.

At the geographical center of the country, Kansas City was far from the threat of invasion, and its well-developed transportation facilities allowed for easy access. Moreover, the Nelson-Atkins had the extra space required to store additional works of art. Although the permanent collection had grown quickly since the museum opened in 1933, it was not yet large enough to fill its three-story Beaux-Arts building, and its storage areas were under-utilized. Parts of the west wing and the upper floor gallery spaces, while not yet finished as galleries, were already outfitted with climate control systems and could serve as additional storage rooms.

On November 10, 1939, Director Paul Gardner of the Nelson-Atkins received a telegram from the Hoogendijk art dealers in Amsterdam: “The Dutch collector Birnbaum considers shipping his pictures to America and I pleaded loan to your museum…. About 15 pictures of small size and extremely fine…. Highly recommend you this opportunity.” This was the first of many telegrams and letters to the Nelson-Atkins from collectors and museums searching for a place to keep their art safe during the war. It is unclear why Birnbaum chose the Nelson-Atkins as a safe haven, but it may have been the result of his association with Harold Woodbury Parsons, an adviser on European art for the museum who had visited Birnbaum’s collection in 1934.

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Don’t Miss Out:

  • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will have a case of archival materials related to their Monuments Men on display in the Bloch Lobby Feb. 5-Mar. 9.
  • The painting by Nicolas de Largillière, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, is on view in Gallery P18. (It was stolen by the Nazis from the Rothschild family in Vienna and stored in a salt mine. It was returned to the Rothschild family after the war, and the Nelson-Atkins purchased it in 1954.)
  • The Monuments Men, with a star studded cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon and, Missouri native, John Goodman, comes out Feb. 7, 2014.

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