In the Hollywood version of “The Monuments Men,” Matt Damon, George Clooney and John Goodman portray art professionals-turned-soldiers who searched for and recovered treasures that the Nazis looted in Europe during World War II.
If filmmakers were searching for additional men who performed that role, they could have looked to three soldiers from Buffalo. Andrew C. Ritchie, Charles P. Parkhurst and Patrick J. Kelleher, all associated with the then-Albright Art Gallery, were among the 345 “Monuments Men” whose mission was to find and return the valuable artwork.
What’s more, some of the art that they recovered later became part of the Buffalo museum’s permanent collection, and one – Edgar Degas’ “Mlle. Fiocre Dans le Ballet de ‘La Source’ ” – will go on exhibit Friday, as part of “Buffalo’s Monuments Men,” an exhibit that explains the roles the three men played in that unsung war effort.
That’s the same day “The Monuments Men” movie opens in theaters here and across the nation.
“We are delighted to honor the work of these great individuals. It is difficult to imagine how much of our collective history and identity might have been lost were it not for them,” said Janne Sirén, director of the Albright-Knox. “We are proud to tell their story in this installation, and to highlight the Albright-Knox’s and Buffalo’s connection to their extraordinary work.”
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program was created by the Allies in 1943 to protect Europe’s cultural treasures that were under intense assault by the Nazi war machine. Its mission later came to encompass the recovery of the illegally seized art and artifacts.
Art that was seen to reflect the Nazi Party’s ideology was scattered across Europe, often winding up in the private collections of party officials. Abstract art, considered “degenerate,” was sold to procure hard currency.
“The Monuments Men” as a term – a misnomer, since a small number of women served, too – came from the civilian ranks of art historians, museum directors, conservationists, curators and registrars.
The first group arrived in Europe on D-Day in June 1944, with a total of 60 serving that first year until Germany’s surrender in May 1945. The work continued until 1951.
Ritchie, who served as the gallery’s director from 1942 to 1949, took a yearlong leave of absence in 1945 to serve as an officer in the Monuments Men. Ritchie repatriated works found in Austria at the Munich Central Collecting Point, one of four major centers where the Allies collected and processed looted cultural objects, often using the Nazis’ detailed documentation of each item. He once told of returning a prized Johannes Vermeer painting to Vienna by booking a private compartment on a train, where he kept watch over it with a “bottle of Burgundy.”
Parkhurst, who served as curator from 1946 to 1947, worked for “The Monuments Men” from 1945 to 1946. He worked at the Munich and Wiesbaden collecting points, handling works found in Germany.
Kelleher, curator of collections from 1950 to 1954, served as fine arts specialist officer in 1945 and 1946, and was responsible for “locating and inspecting repositories, maintaining works of art from museums, churches and private collections of Cologne, Düsseldorf, Bonn, Kassel, Mainz and other cities.” He also worked at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point, where he encountered such priceless works as the Bust of Nefertiti, Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and the Holy Crown and Crown Jewels of Hungary.
“Our guys went after combat, so they weren’t in as much danger as the first run of ‘Monuments Men.’ But they all were exposed to the deprivations of war,” said Gabriela Zoller, the gallery’s fine art collection cataloguer, who organized the show.
“People think of art professionals as aesthetes, and maybe not the most masculine, but they got the job done.”
The Degas painting took a circuitous route to the Albright-Knox. It was seized in June 1940 from Alphonse Kahn, its owner, and wound up on a train in France that sat in a station for three weeks only to break down a few miles down the track. Eventually the work was retrieved by Allied forces and returned to Kahn in 1947. After several transactions, it was donated to the gallery in 1958.
Another painting in the museum’s permanent collection, Paul Gauguin’s “The Yellow Christ,” also was recovered by “The Monuments Men.” It was sold to the Albright-Knox in 1946, a decision, Zoller said, that may have been motivated by owner Paul Rosenberg’s sense of gratitude to Ritchie for his work during the war.
“Buffalo’s Monuments Men” will be on display in the gallery’s west corridor, near the entrance, through April 6. The exhibit, as well as the entire museum, will be open free to the public from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday as part of M&T First Fridays @ the Gallery.