NEW YORK — IN a war filled with bad guys, some of the good guys were the United States Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) officers who were assigned the enormous task of collecting and returning cultural property to the rightful owners after World War II.
Conditions, said several former MFAA officers at a January war-spoils conference, were shocking: Shattered cities, no government, people burning priceless furniture for firewood.
Army captain Walter Farmer was assigned to the collection point at Wiesbaden, Germany. He was given a large building with no light, heat, windows, or water.
``First I put up a barbed-wire fence and installed guns and headlights on it,'' he recalled. ``Two thousand windows had to be installed. I had to find photographers and art historians. The last step was putting in three levels of guards - all guarding each other.
``I had tanks line the roads, and the trucks started rolling in, bumper to bumper. Periodically you'd hear shouts go up, like: `There's [the Egyptian bust of] Nefertiti!' ''
The art, he said, came in industrial quantities. He dealt with 16 major museums, 28,000 cases of inventory. ``One guy told me, `You've got more gold and jewels in that room than Montezuma.' ''
Then came a major blow. An order came to send 202 famous paintings from German museums to the National Gallery in Washington for ``safekeeping.''
Farmer was shocked. ``Everything that had been done to ensure US integrity seemed to be undone,'' he said.
The soldier quickly assembled 32 of 35 MFAA officers in Europe. In an expression of defiance, they signed what became known as the Wiesbaden Manifesto, the only protest by officers against orders in World War II. While the paintings did go on exhibit in Washington, they were met with protests and returned two years later.
``We redeemed our public honor by doing our own exhibit in Wiesbaden to reassure the German public that their treasures were safely kept,'' said Farmer.