George’s Clooney’s 2014 film The Monuments Men dramatises the heroic efforts of a small group of Allied army protection officers given the mission of tracing art stolen by the Nazis from across Europe during the second world war. Iris Lauterbach’s The Central Collecting Point in Munich, translated from the German edition published in 2015 and expanded with an excellent introductory essay by James Sheehan, picks up where The Monuments Men ends.
The book documents the remarkable story of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the US Army’s Central Collecting Point (CCP) at Munich’s Königsplatz from 1945 until 1949, and beyond. In the former Nazi Party headquarters, US army protection officers, alongside German museum officials and art historians, industriously laboured towards making an inventory of and restituting of thousands of objects, many of which had been retrieved from mines, shelters and other wartime hiding places.
By 1952, the Munich CCP, one of four collection points in the American zone, had returned more than 33,000 objects to their rightful owners, including German museums. This was an undertaking that required “heroic administrative endeavours” at times, Lauterbach argues, while the methods applied at the CCP – its international community – and the contributions by the US military government to Munich’s cultural life more generally, marked “a new beginning” for the protection and restitution of art.
The focus of Lauterbach’s account is on organisations, structures and individuals, rather than on the fate and provenance of particular works of art. Though the publication does not include a list of sources, references indicate that an impressive number of documents, both analogue and online, were consulted.
A wealth of black and white photographs depicting the CCP staff, their daily routines and exhibitions – before they left with the next shipments, the most important works were put on display in the library – and pictures of individual works of art and other illustrations have been included, bringing the CCP’s history and procedures to life.
The core of Lauterbach’s book shows the task that officer Craig Hugh Smyth, of the monuments, fine art and archives department and the first director of the CCP, and his personnel faced in the late spring of 1945 was far from easy. Some objects arrived in terrible condition, and there was the ever-increasing workload of cataloguing and filing truckloads of works. The officers were often hampered by insufficient evidence, and there were problems with security and theft.
By far the most daunting task was the return of art to other countries, the so-called “external restitution”, Lauterbach writes. To work with people from many national backgrounds, including former enemy states Germany, Austria and Italy, was testing at times. Mistakes were also made. A Yugoslavian “representative” falsely claimed 165 paintings for his country – and with success.
Many monuments men were awestruck by the stream of beautiful objects that passed through the CCP during these years. “Never again will art treasures of all epochs and countries come together in such a concentrated form at one point,” the CCP photographer Ingrid Loeffler remarked. Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges, Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, Meissen porcelain, tapestries, books and archives – the CPP was a “museum without visitors”, Heute magazine wrote in 1946, albeit a temporary one.
By November 1949, the most important pieces held at the CCP had been returned and delegates began to leave. The remaining 10,000 works were handed over to the trusteeship of the German federal government in 1952. Meanwhile, the CCP became home to the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte (Central Institute for Art History), founded in 1946, and is still there today.
Provenance research is now an important field, and Lauterbach’s The Central Collecting Point in Munich gives us a welcome insight into a captivating episode of its postwar history.
Mary-Ann Middelkoop is a junior research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Wolfson College
Getty Research Institute $70 (£50.95), ISBN 978-1606065822