Rihoko Ueno, co–curator of the exhibitionMonuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe’s Art, 1942–1946, examines the conditions inside mines throughout Germany and Austria where the Nazis stored caches of looted artwork and artifacts. She will be participating in a Twitter chat on March 11 at 2:30 p.m. ET. Join in on Twitter with your questions by using the hashtag #MonMenChat.
During World War II, the Nazis looted museums and private collections then hid the plundered art and cultural artifacts in locations scattered across Germany and Austria.
Looted art was discovered in thousands of locations from castles, monasteries, military bunkers, and assorted buildings, but some of the largest repositories were inside mines.
Since the Archives of American Art’s exhibition Monuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe’s Art, 1942–1946 opened on February 7th there have been questions from the press and attendees about the mines—from the conditions inside to what was found at each location. These are the most frequently asked questions.
What were the conditions in the mines?
To begin with, I think it’s fair to wonder why so many mines were used as repositories. They were ideal for storing art for various reasons. At depths of up to 800 meters underground, the mines provided shelter from bombing; they were sprawling networks of tunnels capable of storing the large caches of artwork; and their interiors provided stable conditions safe from the vicissitudes of weather above ground.
The inside of the mines was cool, dark and dry. According to an Archives of American Art oral history interview with Monuments Man and conservator George Stout, who supervised the recovery of art from Merkers and Ransbach repositories, the mines were relatively dry with a low average relative humidity of 40%. This stable environment, insulated from fluctuations in temperature and humidity that damages art, in some ways matches the preferred climate–controlled conditions for document storage today: limited exposure to ultraviolet light, a constant temperature no higher than 72°F, and a steady relative humidity between 40% and 50%. Of course, there were exceptions—the climate inside Ransbach mine was considered too damp, and therefore unsuitable, for long–term storage of paintings, so it did not contain as much art as other repositories.
One complication of the art recovery effort was that many of the repositories were salt mines and airborne salinity could potentially damage uncovered paintings. George Stout described the experience of transporting art at Merkers salt mine and said the soldiers “stripped Jeeps to a size that would fit on the mine elevators and they’d take them down there to get around. Well, of course, the ground was salt, and with the jeeps running around, a certain amount of just plain salt had gone into the air.” Fortunately, most of the art and artifacts, especially Old Masters paintings, were inside wooden cases. There were nineteenth century paintings which were not housed in cases which might have been damaged by prolonged exposure to the airborne salinity but they were only there for a few weeks. Stout explained, “In paintings, that amount of salt is not a serious threat, except that it does hold moisture, and if they were moved from that locality into one of normal atmospheric conditions they would have gotten unusually damp.” Since there were no packing materials available, Stout was resourceful and used fur coats that were found in a large military store inside one of the mines to wrap and store the paintings so they were safe for transport.
Were there explosions in the mines?
In the Hollywood version of events, there is a scene inside the mines where a Monuments Man steps on a landmine hidden among some rubble and detritus. How likely was such a scenario in reality? For the most part the mines were in working condition and were actively in use by local miners who needed to have regular access to the tunnels, so the floors of the mines were not riddled with explosives.
There were some explosions in the mines used as repositories, though the blasts were not set off by accident. In Stout’s retelling of events, local miners and mine administrators at the Altaussee salt mine in Austria sabotaged the Nazis. Nazi Gauleiter August Eigruber, who was hiding in the village of Altaussee along with other SS officials and Nazi leaders, had bombs transported into the tunnels which he ordered to be detonated before the Allied troops arrived at the salt mine. In order to thwart the Nazis, “[The miners] dug up the floor of these narrow mine passages and made it that much more difficult to get through.” The miners and mine administrators saw strangers carrying oak cases into the mine each labeled Marmor, nicht stürzen (Marble, do not drop), which they found contained explosives once they inspected the contents. The bombs were placed in mine chambers but the wiring was not set up, so the miners removed them and the main entrances to the mine were blasted to deceive the Nazis and prevent further access to the looted art.
In another instance at Merkers–Kieselbach mine in Thuringia, Germany, the Monuments Men encountered a vault sealed by a steel safe door which had a combination lock that would not yield even after repeated attempts to open it. Finally, army engineers were brought to the mine and they blasted the entrance open to find a treasure trove of Nazi gold and bags of currency.
Where were the mines, and which artworks were stored inside?
These mines were used as major repositories and famous art and objects were recovered from each. There were many different mines which stored art so this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it highlights the locations frequently mentioned in the art recovery efforts by the Monuments Men.
ALTAUSSEE salt mine (Styria, Austria) was one of the largest repositories for plundered art. The mines housed roughly 6,500 paintings as well as books, statues, furniture, and jewels from museums and private collections. Notable items include Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb or the Ghent Altarpiece stolen from St. Bravo Cathedral in Belgium, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child also known as the Bruges Madonna from the Church of Our Lady in Belgium, and Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting owned by the Czernin family before the war. Hitler wanted the art to become part of the permanent collection at the Führermuseum which he planned to build in Linz, Austria. The repository also contained Rothschild family jewels and Italian art from Monte Cassino for Hermann Göring’s personal collection.
BERNTERODE salt mine (Thuringia, Germany) was used to store German munitions and military supplies. The repository also contained the caskets of Prussian royalty and leaders: King Friedrich the First, Friedrich the Great, and Field Marshal Von Hindenberg and Frau Von Hindenberg. The Prussian imperial regalia, as well as treasures from Potsdam including tapestries, books, and paintings were also found within the mines.
MERKERS–KIESELBACH salt and potassium mine (Thuringia, Germany), also known as the Kaiseroda mine in the village of Merkers, housed Reichsbank gold bars worth over $200 million in 1945, bags of foreign currency, and art, including the famous Bust of Nefertiti, from several museums such as the Kaise–Friedrich Museum in Berlin and the Kusthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The mine also contained the personal belongings, jewels, and chests of gold teeth from concentration camp victims.
RANSBACH salt mine (near Merkers in Thuringia, Germany) held materials libraries sent over for safekeeping. The mine held over 2 million books, manuscripts and maps from the former Prussian State Library at Berlin, University of Marburg Library, the Landes und Stadtbibliothek of Dusseldorf, and other institutions. There were also musical scores, sheet music and stage costumes from the Berlin State Opera and Theatre and a truckload of paintings from the Berlin State Museums.
SIEGEN copper mine (Westphalia, Germany) contained a large cache of art and artifacts, notably the relics of Charlemagne from Aachen Cathedral, as well as paintings, sculpture, manuscripts, and other objects from Western German museums.
Join us for upcoming programs related to the exhibition Monuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe’s Art, 1942–1946:
- On Tuesday, March 11, at 2:30 p.m. ET we will be hosting a Twitter chat about real stories of the Monuments Men. Curators Barbara Aikens and Rihoko Ueno (@ArchivesAmerArt) will be available to answer your questions about the men and women who worked to protect Europe’s cultural heritage during World War II. Our co–hosts are the National Gallery of Art (@ngadc), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (@HolocaustMuseum), and the National Archives (@USNatArchives). Get your questions ready and join us on Twitter by following the hashtag #MonMenChat.
- Exhibition curator Barbara Aikens will discuss highlights of the exhibition Thursday, March 13 and Friday, March 28 at 1:00 p.m. Gallery talks will be held in the Archives of American Art’s Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery in the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture (8th and F Streets, NW).
- Oral history interview with George Leslie Stout, 1978 Mar. 10-21
- The Path of the Monuments Men Through Europe by Esri
- The Real Monuments Men and Women by Bettina Smith
- Artful Collaborators: James J. Rorimer and Rose Valland by Rihoko Ueno
- Monuments Men in Japan: Discoveries in the George Leslie Stout papers by Rihoko Ueno
Rihoko Ueno is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art.