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Paintings from the Berlin Museums

March 17 – April 25, 1948
Ground Floor, Central Lobby, Central Gallery, Galleries G-9, G-10 Main Floor, Galleries 50, 60, 67, 71, 72

This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery.

Overview: The 202 paintings on view had been brought to the United States in December 1945 "for safe keeping" by the Department of the Army, and stored at the National Gallery in spite of furious opposition from museum directors, Gallery staff, the public, government officials, and a resolution in May 1946 from 98 leading art authorities demanding the immediate return of these works to Germany. They were exhibited in 1948 at the request of the Department of the Army and the Senate Armed Services Committee. All the paintings, examples of Flemish, Dutch, German, French, English, and Italian Schools, were from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, except for Don Quixote by Honoré Daumier and The Greenhouse by Edouard Manet from Berlin's Nationalgalerie. They were found in April 1945, along with 100 tons of Reichsbank gold, by the American Third Army when it captured the Kaiserroda Works at Merkers in Thuringia. The paintings had been stored in salt mines 2,100 feet underground for protection from Allied bombing of Berlin.

The exhibition was supervised by Dr. Irene K. Kuehnel, curator of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum since 1925 and consultant to the American Office of Military Government for Germany. The original frames, which had been removed for storage, were later destroyed in a fire. Thus, most paintings were seen in simple wood moldings.

The Army assigned a detachment of military police to supplement the Gallery's regular guard force in the 9 rooms where the paintings were exhibited. President Harry Truman and his guards came for a brief unscheduled early Sunday morning visit; he returned after closing time with Mrs. Truman and their daughter Margaret and toured the exhibition with David Finley, the Gallery's director. The attendance record was 62,983 visitors that day.

Following the close of the exhibition, custody of the paintings passed from the National Gallery to the Department of the Army. At a meeting of museum and army officials, it was agreed to send the works on an exhibition tour of the country. However, 52 (most of them panel) paintings were considered too fragile to travel and were packed for return to the American Zone in Germany. 50 more were removed after the Boston showing. Announcement of the return set to rest Russian charges that the Americans had taken the pictures as war booty, and controversies in the American art world as to whether the government had a moral right to transfer the paintings. It also ended the controversy over the retention of the pictures here as compensation for American expenditures in Germany. The trimmed-down exhibition went on to other museums in the United States.

Attendance: 964,970 in 40 days, a record for any museum or art gallery in the world in a comparable period. On one day, Sunday, April 11, there were 67,490 visitors, an all-time high. Two nurses and an attendant in the emergency station handled more than 60 first aid cases on Sunday, April 18, when there were 64,131 visitors.

Checklist: Paintings from the Berlin Museums. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1948.

Attendance: 964,970

Other Venues: New York
Detroit Institute of Arts
Cleveland Museum of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
City Art Museum of Saint Louis
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio