James J. Rorimer papers, 1921-1982, bulk 1943-1950

A Finding Aid to the James J. Rorimer Papers, 1921-1982, bulk 1943-1950, in the Archives of American Art, by Rihoko Ueno

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Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Table of Contents:

Biographical Information

James J. Rorimer (1905-1966) was a museum director and curator of medieval art working in New York City. Rorimer was the primary force and first director of The Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During World War II, Rorimer served in the U.S. Army Monuments, Fine Art and Archives Section protecting cultural sites and recovering stolen art work.

James J. Rorimer was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1905 and attended the University School there until he left in 1921 in order to study abroad in Europe. He studied at the Ecole Gory in Paris for two years, then returned to the United States to finish his studies at the University School in Cleveland. In 1927, Rorimer graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. Soon after, he began working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City where he worked his way up from a position as an assistant to Head Curator of Medieval Art, a position he filled from 1934 to 1955, director of The Cloisters, and eventually director and trustee of the museum.

Rorimer was heavily involved with the planning and development of The Cloisters, working closely with the architect Charles Collens. When The Cloisters opened in 1938, Rorimer worked there as a curator and later became the first director in 1949. During this time, Rorimer developed a professional relationship with John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who donated to New York City a large tract of land, a portion of which was given to the Metropolitan Museum as a location to build The Cloisters. The Cloisters' collections evolved into a world renown collection of medieval art under Rorimer's curatorship and directorship.

As the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1955-1966, Rorimer nearly doubled membership and attendance, raised a substantial amount of endowment funding, renovated almost half of the galleries, and increased the exhibition space.

Rorimer married Katherine Newton in 1942. They had two children, Anne and Louis.

During World War II, from 1943 to 1946, Rorimer served in the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Art and Archives (MFAA) Section. The "Monuments Men" of the U.S. Army were charged with locating and protecting historical sites, monuments, artwork, and buildings from Allied bombing. Towards the end of the war, the section led recovery efforts to locate and retrieve Nazi stolen art works and other cultural heritage items. Rorimer served as a MFAA officer in Normandy and Paris, and, while in Germany, was promoted to chief of the MFAA Section of the 7th Army Western Military District.

While in Paris, Rorimer worked closely with Rose Valland, an employee of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who spied on the Nazis and recorded in detail the movements of artwork stolen by members of the Nazi party, including Hermann Wilhelm Goering and Joseph Goebbels. With Valland's assistance, Rorimer discovered a large cache of stolen and confiscated artwork at the Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. He and his team also recovered other artwork, European antiquities, and cultural icons that were stored in nearby salt mines. Rorimer and the other Monuments Men arranged the recovery and removal of the cache of stolen goods.

Rorimer received numerous awards for his work during World War II including, the French Cross of War in 1945, Chevalier in 1947, and officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1957. Rorimer wrote about his work as a Monuments Man in his book Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War, published by Abelard Press in 1950. James J. Rorimer died in 1966.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The papers of curator and museum director James J. Rorimer measure 2.3 linear feet and date from 1921 to 1982, with the bulk from 1943-1950. The papers include documentation of James J. Rorimer's World War II service in the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives Section of the U.S. Army and his activities protecting historic and cultural sites from bombing, and locating and recovering art work and cultural icons stolen by the Nazis. Found within the papers are scattered biographical materials and correspondence, writings include draft versions of Rorimer's book Safe-Keeping or Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War, financial records, photographic materials including a photo album containing photographs of European art work and cultural sites where Rorimer worked, newsclippings and additional printed materials, and one scrapbook of clippings dating from World War II.

Scattered biographical materials include a college transcript and various certificates. Much of the correspondence is comprised of army directives but also includes some personal letters from Rorimer's wife Katherine.

Writings by Rorimer include several handwritten manuscripts and drafts of his book Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War, which was originally titled Safe-Keeping. There is one folder of miscellaneous financial records, mostly dating from Rorimer's time in the army. There is also one folder of minutes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Board of Trustees meetings.

Photographic materials include black and white photographs, negatives, contact prints, postcards, and one photo album. The photograph album was given to Rorimer from the headquarters of the Office of Military Government in Baden-Wurttemberg and is titled War Damage in Wurtemmberg: A Selection of Photographs. Many of the photographs document bomb damage to European cultural monuments and historic sites. There are photographs of Nazi stolen art repositories discovered by Rorimer and fellow Monuments Men at Buxheim monastery and Neuschwanstein castle, art recovery and transportation, and restitution work at Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. Photographs of people, such as Edith Standen, Rose Valland, and Rorimer, are scattered throughout the series.

Printed materials include newspaper and magazine clippings, mostly related to The Cloisters or the activities and achievements of the Monuments Men. Printed materials also includes bulletins, brochures, and press releases. There is also a war-time scrapbook and two handbooks of maps showing historic monuments and sites in France and Germany.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged as 7 series:

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms:

  • Allied Forces. Supreme Headquarters. Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section.
  • Cloisters (Museum)
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.). Board of Trustees.
  • Rorimer, Katherine S.
  • Valland, Rose
  • Art thefts--Germany--History--20th century
  • Art treasures in war--France
  • Art treasures in war--Germany
  • Cultural property--Protection--Europe--History--20th century
  • Curators--New York (State)--New York
  • Museum directors--New York (State)--New York
  • Photographs
  • Scrapbooks
  • World War, 1939-1945--Art and the war
  • World War, 1939-1945--Confiscations and contributions--Germany
  • World War, 1939-1945--Destruction and pillage--Europe


The James J. Rorimer papers were donated to the Archives of American Art by his wife, Katherine Serrell Rorimer, in 2 installments in 1983.

Separated and Related Materials

Among the holdings of the Archives of American is an oral history interview with Anne Rorimer, James' daughter, conducted in 2010 by the Archives of American Art. The Archives also holds the papers of several members of the World War II Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Section of the U.S. Army, including S. Lane Faison, Walker Hancock, Walter Horn, Thomas Carr Howe, George Stout, and Otto Wittman. as well as oral history interviews with some of them.

The official government records for James Rorimer's service during World War II in the MFAA Section of the U.S. Army are maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration.

How the Collection was Processed

This collection was partially microfilmed upon receipt, reels 2800-2802; these reels are no longer in circulation. This collection was processed by Rihoko Ueno in April 2012.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

Use of original papers requires an appointment.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The James J. Rorimer papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

Portions of the collection are available on legacy microfilm reels 2800-2802 in Archives of American Art offices and through interlibrary loan. Please contact reference services for more information. Researchers should note that the microfilm copies may not be complete and the filmed order does not match the order outlined in the finding aid due to processing.

How to Cite this Collection

James J. Rorimer papers, 1923-1982, bulk 1943-1950. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory