Sunday 2 March 2014

The Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

The Austrian Alps was a great hiding place for the Von Trapp family during the Second World War.  It was also a great hiding place for Europe's greatest masterpieces.  And that's exactly what the Nazis did, using Germany's and Austria's salt mines as a depot for looted art, intended for Hitler's Fuhrermuseum.  Here is the story of the greatest treasure hunt in history.

President Roosevelt had established the Monuments Fine Arts & Archives Sector upon learning about the Nazis art plundering program in 1943.  He assembled a group of 350 men, artists, architects, professors and museum curators, to protect and recover as much art as possible.  In the Spring of 1944, the "Monuments Men" descended upon the Saltzkammergut section of Austrian, a mountainous part of the country perfect for hiding army deserters, draft dodgers and precious art inside its caves and mines.

Stored paintings inside Altausee mine courtesy

But as they were descending upon the Alps, Hitler, knowing that Germany was losing the war, had ordered all of the artwork destroyed.  One particular mine which was filled with loot, Altausee, had been filled with eight airplane bombs with the order to detonate them.  However, in a gutsy move, two Altausee miners, Hermann Konig and Alois Raudaschi, approached the head of the Austrian Gestapo, Ernst Kaltenbrummer with a plan.  They suggested removing the eight bombs and instead bombing the entrances to the mine to prevent the S.S. bomb specialists from destroying the masterpieces.   Kaltenbrummer surprisingly agreed to the idea.

monuments men uncovering ghent altarpiece

Ghent altarpiece courtesy

On V-E Day, May 8, 1945, the Monuments Men reached the Altaussee mine high in the Austrian Alps.  Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein led the treasure hunt.  Bit by bit, the "art detectives" recovered Europe's masterpieces:  Vermeer's "The Astronomer" and "Artist in His Studio", some Capodimonte Museum pieces, Michelangelo's "Madonna of Bruges" (Madonna & Child) and the piece de resistance, Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece.  The latter was to be the intended centrepiece at Hitler's Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria.
When the final tally was written, they had recovered 6500 paintings, statues, pieces of furniture, coins and libraries, all looted by the Nazis.

Madonna of bruges Michelangelo

Michelangelo's Madonna & Child courtesy

While the Monuments Mens' mission was considered a success, experts estimate that up to 100,000 "objets d'art" are still missing today.  In fact, last November NBC News reported on an apartment in Munich, Germany where works of art by Picasso, Matisse and others were found amid rotting groceries.   The treasure hunt continues.

Vermeer's "The Astronomer" also recvoerd from Altausee courtesy

Note:  For more information:

1.  Visit my post "The Monuments Men" at
2.  Read The Monuments Men:  Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Robert Edsel.

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