Artful Collaborators: James J. Rorimer and Rose Valland

By Rihoko Ueno

September 23, 2013

Archivist Rihoko Ueno, who recently processed holdings and curated an exhibit related to the Monuments Men at the Archives of American Art, examines how the actions of Rose Valland and James J. Rorimer saved valuable works of art in World War II.

Standen and Valland
Edith Standen and Rose Valland with art to be restituted to France, 1946 May / unidentified photographer. James J. Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Since processing several collections on the Monuments Men at the Archives of American Art, thanks to funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation’s grant program for World War II provenance research, I have wanted to write about Lieutenant Commander James J. Rorimer and Captain Rose Valland. Their exciting collaboration led to an incredibly important discovery: a repository of looted artwork at Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany.

Established during World War II, the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section (MFAA) of the U.S. Army—nicknamed the “Monuments Men”—was charged with documenting cultural monuments and protecting them from bomb damage along with securing the location, recovery, and repatriation of art that had been systematically looted by the Nazis.

Many of the Monuments Men were highly educated and had flourishing careers in the art world as curators, historians, conservators, and museum directors before the war. James J. Rorimer was no different. A Harvard graduate, Rorimer began working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City after college and started his rapid ascent from Assistant Curator to Curator of Medieval Art, eventually becoming the curator of The Cloisters when it opened in 1938.

Gardens of Versailles during World War II, 1945 / unidentified photographer. James J. Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Gardens of Versailles during World War II, 1945 / unidentified photographer. James J. Rorimer paper, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of Rothschild jewelry and decorative boxes
Rothschild jewelry and decorative boxes, 1945 May 13 / Irving Katz, photographer. James J. Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Rorimer enlisted as an infantryman in U.S. Army in 1943 and was appointed to be one of the first Monuments Men in 1944. He served as a MFAA officer in Normandy and Paris, surveying cultural sites and protecting them from bomb damage. While in Paris, Rorimer had an auspicious encounter with Rose Valland, an art historian and employee of the Jeu de Paume Museum. During the German occupation of France, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR)—the Nazi organization in charge of the systematic looting of art and cultural artifacts—designated the Jeu de Paume as the central location for storing and sorting plundered treasures. Valland was the only member of the museum’s original staff retained by the Nazis. Valland spied on the Nazis, who did not realize that she spoke German, and kept detailed records on the transportation of artwork stolen by members of the Third Reich. She passed information on to the French Resistance and alerted Rorimer to the ERR’s activities.

At the Buxheim repository
Buxheim repository packing and crafting shop, 1945 / Edward E. Adams, photographer. James J. Rorimer papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Thanks to Valland’s assistance and meticulous record keeping on shipments of artwork, train numbers and their contents, along with their destinations, Rorimer located a large cache of stolen artwork at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. The Monuments Men arranged for the recovery and transportation of the artworks to be returned to their countries of origin. Subsequently, Rorimer was promoted to head of the MFAA Section of the 7th Army Western Military District while he was stationed in Germany.

After the liberation of Paris, Valland worked as a member of the Commission de Récupération Artistique (Commission for Art Recovery) and continued to work on the restitution of art work after the war. For her dedication and service, Valland received the French Legion of Honor and the Médaille de la Résistance, and was made a Commandeur of the Order of Arts and Letters. Valland received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. Valland was appointed a conservator of the French Musées Nationaux in 1953 and became Chair of the “Commission for the Protection of Works of Art” in 1954. She wrote about her wartime experiences in her book Le front de l’art (1961).

Upon his return to civilian life, Rorimer resumed his work at the Met, becoming the director of The Cloisters in 1949, and then leading the Metropolitan Museum of Art as director in 1955. Rorimer received numerous awards for his work as a Monuments Man: the Bronze Star, the French Cross of War in 1945, the Chevalier in 1947, and Officer of the French Legion of Honor in 1957. Rorimer also wrote a book Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War (1950) about his experience as a Monuments Man.

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Rihoko Ueno is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art.

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