Answer Man: What was the biggest art show ever to hit St. Louis?

News-DemocratFebruary 24, 2014 

With all the talk about the movie "The Monuments Men," I'm trying to determine the veracity of a memory that came back to me recently. I seem to remember standing in line at the St. Louis Art Museum when I was a teenager back in the '40s to see an exhibit of art that had been recovered by our armed forces during and after World War II. Am I remembering this correctly or am I confusing it with something else? -- Dorothy Sandor, of Belleville

Great news, Dorothy: Your memory is still a masterpiece worthy of da Vinci or Picasso. You were lucky enough to see "Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums," which to this day remains one of the biggest art shows ever to hit St. Louis.

In its short 18-day stop here -- Jan. 31 to Feb. 17, 1949 -- 227,414 people lined up to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. With an average of 12,600 people per day filing through, I can only imagine the traffic that taxed Forest Park and St. Louis' pre-interstate street system back then.

"Only three exhibitions in our history have drawn higher attendance," museum spokesman Matthew Hathaway told me. "And each of those was installed for a longer period of time."

Exhibited in cooperation with the U.S. Army, the show had people coming out in droves wherever it went during its two-year national tour, including New York City, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles.

Herbert Stewart Leonard, who was appointed assistant director at the St. Louis Art Museum in February 1949, had served as a bomb disposal officer under Gen. George Patton and was a member of the Fine Arts and Archives section of the U.S. military government in Germany -- the so-called Monuments Men group (www.monumentsmenfoundation.org).

In addition, Perry T. Rathbone, who directed the St. Louis museum from 1940 to 1955 before moving to Boston, was considered one of the leading 20th century American museum directors. Between them, it's little wonder the stellar collection came to St. Louis.

The show boasted 95 of the masterpieces that, along with gold and other treasures, the 3rd U.S. Army had discovered in April 1945 deep in a German salt mine near Merkers-Kieselbach, Germany. (See the full story at www.archives.gov: "Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure.)

Even back in the '40s, the masterpieces in the show alone were valued at $50 million and included works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian. But these were not paintings looted from German Jews or other countries. These were treasures taken from Berlin's finest museums and hidden for safekeeping by the Germans as Berlin faced attack late in the war.

In a 1949 interview with the Findlay, Ohio, paper, Jack Ammons, a member of the 90th Infantry Division, remembered the mine's long, underground tunnels and loading the paintings onto Jeeps that were then lifted to the surface by elevator. Hundreds of paintings then were wrapped in German sheepskin coats and moved by truck, Greg Bradsher, a senior archivist with the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, told the Toledo Blade.

Then, despite objections, the most important paintings wound up in the United States for safekeeping.

"The philosophy was until the German museums were able to be rebuilt, and it could go back to them," Bradsher said.

Eventually, officials approved an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington with a smaller show allowed to tour the country. Paintings were shipped in padded and heated railcars, usually used for thoroughbred horses, and often brought to museums by military police convoy. During the tour, donations were collected for the children of war-ravaged Germany.

"For many, the exhibition will be a discovery, a revelation; the beginning of a lifelong pleasure in the contemplation of works of art," Rathbone said at the opening of the show's final stop in Toledo. "And I am confident the exhibition has already greatly elevated the place that art occupies in the public mind as no other event in the art history of this country has done."

I certainly hope it fostered your lifelong appreciation for art, Dorothy. And if you'd like to relive that thrilling experience, I've found numerous historical guides from that exhibition on Amazon.com and elsewhere for as little as $6.

Today's trivia

Which president reportedly left a 23-word last will and testament when he died?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: In the history of the winter Olympics, there have been 26 ties for a medal -- eight gold, 11 silver and seven bronze. One of the ties was a three-way logjam for second in 1968, when Jenny Fish, Dianne Holum and Mary Meyers, all of the United States, finished the 500-meter speedskating event in 46.3 seconds. The Soviet Union's Lyudmila Titova took the gold in 46.1.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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