SAH Blog

Denys Peter Myers, Monuments Man

By John A. Burns
| Feb 07, 2014

Denys Peter Myers, a Harvard Fine Arts graduate and one of the founding members—and a Fellow—of SAH, was working as director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. Through a chance meeting with one of its officers, Peter was transferred in to the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the subject of the book The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and now a movie. The Monuments Men movie focuses on the most dramatic work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the recovery of the priceless plundered patrimony of the countries overrun by the war. But, much of the work of the section simply helped those countries stitch back together their culture and heritage. Peter was listed in official reports as “T/5 D. P. Myers – Monuments Specialist Assistant,” a rank equivalent to a Corporal. He was first stationed in Versailles, then in and around Wurzburg in occupied Bavaria after the German surrender. Peter saved onionskin copies of the dry military “Monthly Consolidated Field Reports” (which he entrusted to Pamela Scott, who graciously shared them with me), evidence of his pride in the work that he and the other Monuments Men accomplished.


MFAA Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle (image via Wikimedia)

The city of Wurzburg had been devastated by Allied incendiary bombs on March 16, 1945, which destroyed ninety percent of the old town. Among the casualties was Balthasar Neumann’s Wurzburg Residenz, which was mostly gutted by the fires except for its core, where the stone vaults below the attics prevented its total loss when the roofs burned and collapsed. Peter played a critical role in saving Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's frescoes of the Four Continents on the vaulted ceiling of the Kaisersaal by requisitioning hydraulic cement from the Army to coat the exterior of the exposed vaults, which he then had tarred. He recalled in 2002, "That stop-gap kept the Tiepolos dry until the roofs could be reconstructed. Among the few accomplishments for which I would like to be remembered, certainly helping save two of the greatest works of art in Europe ranks high." A subsequent field report for February 1946 stated, “. . . completed slate covering to the newly constructed roof over the Kaisersaal, also boarded all windows and skylights to the hall.” The eventual restoration of the entire Residenz was not completed until 1987. It is now a World Heritage Site.

Many of the reports Peter saved detail weekly inspections, conditions assessments, security assessments, and recommendations for protecting the myriad art and jewelry collections, books, and archives, which had been dispersed to locations around the region during the war, seemingly for their protection more so than for plunder, although there are accounts of returning objects to “rightful owners.” Regarding protection, one report stated, “It is recommended by this office that the Castle Triefenstein, owned by Prince Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg in Kreuzwertheim (L50/N23) RB Mainfranken be converted into a central museum for all the art objects belonging to the Cologne Museum which are at present improperly stored thruout the various small repositories in Mainfranken.” Regarding salvage and restoration, another report, about Castle Veitshöcheim, stated that, “Bomb craters in the gardens have been leveled off. Fragments of damaged statues in the gardens have been collected and safed for future reconstruction.” Not only objects were displaced, as this report entry notes, “Castle Kleinheubach (L5C/NO2), owner Prince Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, visited 7 February

1946 by T/5 Myers and Dr. Berger. The 650 Estonian D.Ps. [displaced persons] on the premises maintain the best order possible under the circumstances. The owners have no complaints against the present occupants.” And, as evidence that the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section were succeeding in helping the residents of Wurzburg recover their lives and culture among the post-war chaos was the report entry that, “Request has been received by this office for permission to use certain rooms in the Festung Marienberg for the purpose of an art school.”

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Watch video of how the real Monuments Men rescued artwork from the Nazis (from BBC News). 
An exhibition of their personal papers, photographs, maps and memoirs is on display at the Archives of American Art in Washington.

3 comments

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  1. Daniel D. Reiff | Mar 08, 2014
    When I first met Peter Myers in the HABS office in 1967 I said to myself, "Golly, Denys Peter Myers sounds awfully familiar...." Growing up in the late 1940s the name "Denys Myers" occasionally came up in my father's reminiscences of his work in the State Department (1944-46) and his involvement, as a legal expert, in the writing the UNO Charter, and setting up the UN (my father was at both conferences). Turns out "Denys Peter Myers" was one of his colleagues -- and a noted, distinguished, expert in international law, and the League of Nations!  (I see he authored at least 11 books on these topics between 1915 and 1949).
       They became friends...and Denys Myers appeared as an adjunct (and cautionary tale)  to a "family story": My father, in his youth in Brooklyn, hooked a ride on his bike to a trolly crossing Williamsburg Bridge; bike slipped, he fell, and was nearly run over by a following trolly. "Now," he said, "my colleague Denys Myers had a similar accident in his youth; getting off a trolley as a child, he slipped, fell under it, and the car rolled over, and cut off, one of his legs."  Today, we hear much of people lliving with disabilities, and succeeding...but less so in the olden days. It didn't stop Peter Myers' father!
  2. Virginia Jansen | Feb 13, 2014
    Walter W. Horn, Professor of Art History, UC Berkeley, was also a "Monuments Man." I was one of those fortunate to study and write my master's thesis with this generous, humane German, who was, I was told, selected also to represent Germany in the javelin throw at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He preferred to go to Florence, where he wrote two fine studies on the Baptistery and Romanesque churches. In 1938 he came to the United States and became the first art historian in the UC system. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the war and eventually was involved in finding the imperial coronation regalia. I am sorry that exploit didn't get into the movie because it is an interesting story, partly shrouded in legends surrounding Horn's exploits, conducted by a man often regarded as "dashing."
  3. James F. O'Gorman | Feb 13, 2014
    You might add to your notice about Denys Peter Myers that, under the urging of Earle G. Shettleworth, Jr., I have written a monograph on Isaiah Rogers using the diaries Peter found and trusted to the Avery Library. It was a project he pursued for many years but could never complete. The book is now at the University of Massachusetts Press with a forward by Earle outlining Peter's life.

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