Treasures

The Monument's Men's Finest Nazi-Looted Art Recoveries: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Vermeer, and More (Photos)

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a historical epic centered on a motley crew of allied soldiers tasked with preserving and seizing Nazi-stolen art during World War II, is based on the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program—a group established in 1943 by the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies. Several of these soldiers served on the front lines of the war, and eventually recovered thousands of paintings and sculptures seized by the Nazis by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Vermeer, and more. Hitler, a former art student, was stockpiling rare works of art—mostly in mines throughout Germany, as well as the Neuschwanstein Castle—to populate his proposed Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. Here are some of the finest stolen works of art that the Monuments Men recovered from the Nazis.

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DeAgostini/Getty; Wikimedia Commons

The Monuments Men's Finest Nazi-Looted Art Recoveries

George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a historical epic centered on a motley crew of allied soldiers tasked with preserving and seizing Nazi-stolen art during World War II, is based on the true story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program—a group established in 1943 by the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies. Several of these soldiers served on the front lines of the war, and eventually recovered thousands of paintings and sculptures seized by the Nazis by the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botticelli, Vermeer, and more. Hitler, a former art student, was stockpiling rare works of art—mostly in mines throughout Germany, as well as the Neuschwanstein Castle—to populate his proposed Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. Here are some of the finest stolen works of art that the Monuments Men recovered from the Nazis.

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Van Eyck's 'Ghent Altarpiece'

This 15th century Flemish painting by Jan van Eyck is composed of 12 panels depicting the Annunciation of Mary, images of Christ the King, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and more. It’s one of the most coveted (read: stolen) pieces of art in history, having been thieved over 13 times through out the years. The Ghent Altarpiece was moved from the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, to the Vatican, but en route, was stored in a museum in Pau. Later, in 1942, Hitler ordered it to be seized and stored in the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, and it was later moved to the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, where the Monuments Men discovered it. They later returned it to Belgium—but the French weren’t invited to the ceremony, since the Vichy French had allowed the Germans to remove it.

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Michelangelo's 'Madonna of Bruges'

This priceless marble sculpture was crafted by Michelangelo in approximately 1501, and depicts Mary with the infant Jesus. It was stolen by the Nazis from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium, in 1944, and stored in the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, where the Monuments Men discovered it. They later returned it to the Church of Our Lady.

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Da Vinci's 'Lady with an Ermine'

This painting by Leonardo da Vinci is from around 1489, and is one of only four portraits of women by Leonardo, including the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de Benci, and La belle ferronniere. The subject of Lady with an Ermine is Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. It was seized by the Nazis during the German occupation of Poland and later by Hans Frank, Governor General of Poland. The Monuments Men eventually discovered it in Frank’s country house in Bavaria, and it was returned to Poland. It currently is displayed in the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. It is, like all of Leonardo's works, priceless.

Franka Bruns/AP

Manet's 'In the Conservatory'

This 1879 oil painting by French legend Edouard Manet depicts Manet’s friends, the Guillernets, at a conservatory at 70 Rue d’Amsterdam in Paris. The painting was seized from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin by the Nazis, but discovered by the Monuments Men at the Kaiserode mine at Merkers in Germany, along with tons of Nazi gold and other priceless artifacts. It is currently displayed in the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

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'Bust of Charlemagne'

This goldwork masterpiece is a reliquary depicting an idealized image of Charlemagne made in around 1350, containing the king’s skullcap. It’s one of the finest examples of a reliquary bust, and was discovered by sculptor Walker K. Hancock—one of the Monuments Men—hidden by the Nazis in an underground tunnel in the town of Siegen, Germany, in 1945. It’s currently displayed at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury, a museum of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Aachen in Germany.

Michael Kooren/Reuters

Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch'

One of the most famous works by the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn—and one of the most famous in the world—this massive painting (11.91 feet by 14.34 feet) was completed in 1642. It was removed from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in 1939, at the start of World War II, and stored by the Nazis in a Dutch mountainside tunnel at Maastricht, which served as a Nazi repository. It was discovered by Monuments Man George Stout in 1945, and was eventually returned to the Rijksmuseum.

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Cellini's 'La Saliera'

This gold table sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini was finished in 1543 for Francis I of France, and depics a male figure (representing the sea) and a female figure (representing earth). Otherwise known as the Cellini Salt Cellar, it’s one of the most valuable salt and pepper holders in the world, with an estimated value of $60 million. It was seized by the Nazis from the Vienna Kunsthistorische Museum, and discovered by Calvin Hathaway, a Monuments Man, among a treasure trove of Nazi-appropriated art near Kitzbühel, Austria.

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Vermeer's 'The Astronomer'

This oil on canvas painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer was created in 1668, and was owned by the Rothschild family until the Nazis seized it in 1940 after the German invasion of France (along with the rest of the Rothschid’s art collection). The Monuments Men discovered it in 1945—along with more than 6,500 other paintings—at the Altaussee salt mine in Austria, and it’s currently displayed at the Louvre in Paris, France.

Wikimedia Commons

Botticelli's 'Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John the Baptist'

This Sandro Botticelli masterpiece was completed between 1490 and 1500 during the height of the Italian Renaissance. It was painted in Florence, and depicts the divine motherhood. The Monuments Men discovered the missing piece, along with many other paintings stolen from the Uffizi, in a jail cell in San Leonardo, Italy. It currently resides in the São Paulo Museum of Art in São Paulo, Brazil.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Rembrandt's 'Self-Portrait'

One of the more famous self-portraits by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn was made in 1650, and later seized by the Nazis and discovered in the Heilbronn mine in Heilbronn, Germany, in 1946 by Monuments Men Dale V. Ford and Henry Ettlinger. It currently sits at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe museum in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Wikimedia Commons

Beethoven's 'Symphony No. 6'

Monuments Man Walter K. Hancock found the original manuscript of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (1808), otherwise known as the Pastoral Symphony, in an underground tunnel in Siegen, Germany, in 1945. The town had been solidly bombed for three months, and was riddled with corpses. But tucked away in this tunnel were some 400 paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and, of course, this manuscript.