By John A. Burns
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.”
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.