PHILADELPHIA — Nothing really prepared sculptor Walker K. Hancock for what he saw in the towns of Europe as Allied forces closed in on Germany in 1945.
Siegen, east of Bonn, was a rubble field.
"The city had been solidly bombed for three months," Hancock wrote in his memoir, A Sculptor's Fortunes. "Corpses had been cleared away, but in one place I noticed a pool of blood with an American helmet beside it."
In this grisly and devastated place, Hancock also found some of the greatest of all European treasures.
Entering an old tunnel, he came upon an incredible trove — works by Rembrandt and Rubens, Van Dyck and Delacroix, Van Gogh, Cranach, and Cezanne — some 400 paintings plucked up and squirreled away by the Nazis.
Here also were Charlemagne's reliquary and the original manuscript of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6.
These "most precious objects" were secured under the direction of Hancock, a bona fide "Monuments Man," one of about 345 men and women charged with saving Europe's cultural treasures from the ravages of war and Nazi pillaging.
The opening Friday of The Monuments Men, the movie starring George Clooney, provides a moment to recall some of Philadelphia's soldiers and civilians who — like Hancock — headed for the battlefields during and immediately after the war to save art. Just as important, it gives an opportunity to note that some art now on view in the city was rescued by Monuments Men.
One of the most distinguished sculptors of his generation, Hancock attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught sculpture there from 1929 to 1967. His public works can be found all over the country, including in Philadelphia, and the academy has several of his sculptures on permanent display in its galleries.
In Philadelphia, his most prominent public installation is the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial at 30th Street Station, dedicated in 1952. Another imposing Hancock — John Paul Jones, telescope in hand — stands behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
When the United States entered the war, Hancock enlisted in the Army and was trained as a medic. But he requested a transfer to the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section — established to protect and recover Europe's cultural treasures as the war entered its climactic phase.
In 1943, he was sent to London, and after the Normandy invasion, he headed for France and Germany, one of a minority of Monuments Men to work with an eye out for bullets and enemies. Most of his colleagues joined the fray after VE Day. Some were civilians; some were in military service.
Hancock, who died in 1998, is the most famous of Philadelphia's Monuments Men. Archaeologist Langdon Warner, director of the Art Museum from 1917 to 1923 and a scholar of Asian art, served as a consultant to the military's Arts and Monuments Section for Japan in 1946.
Before that, he had advocated strongly for protecting Nara and Kyoto during bombings. Japanese citizens in those two ancient capitals were so grateful a small shrine was built in Warner's honor in Kyoto and a memorial tablet honoring him now stands in Nara.
"He was very modest about his role," said Cathy Herbert, coordinator of collections research and documentation at the Art Museum. But in Japan, Warner, who died in 1955, was considered a hero.
Calvin Hathaway, curator of decorative arts at the museum during two periods (the last ended in 1973), served as a Monuments Man from 1943 to 1946. Hathaway, an Army captain, is best remembered for his work uncovering a vast trove of Nazi-appropriated art near Kitzbühel, Austria.
Among the objects found there was Benvenuto Cellini's famous gold saltcellar, La Saliera, now valued at about $60 million. It had been taken from the Vienna Kunsthistorische Museum.
Hathaway died in 1973.
Philadelphia is also home to at least three works of art seized by Nazis during the war. The most familiar is Gustave Courbet's Nude Reclining by the Sea (1868), a gift to the Art Museum in 1963 from collector Louis Stern.
Before World War Two, the painting belonged to Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg, who fled Paris in advance of the German occupation. He stored his paintings in a Bordeaux bank vault, which Nazis raided in 1941.
The Courbet caught the eye of Hermann Goering, second only to Hitler in his voracious appetite for art. Goering had the painting taken to his estate in Veldenstein, northeast of Nuremberg, which was crammed with looted art.
As the Allies closed in, Goering sought to save what he could, shipping boxcars full of art to the south.
When the train carrying the Courbet reached Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, pillaging villagers in search of liquor overwhelmed it.
Monuments Man Bernard Taper described the scene: "The peasantry that came swarming had heard the train was loaded with schnapps, and the first-comers got their fill thereof. Those who came later had to be satisfied with things like a school of Rogier van der Weyden painting, a 13th-century Limoges reliquary, four late Gothic wood statues, and other such baubles — whatever they could grab" — including the Courbet.
Taper and other Monuments Men went door-to-door in Berchtesgaden looking for paintings. The Courbet was eventually returned to Rosenberg, who lived in New York after the war, and he sold it to Stern.
Much of this chaotic history can be seen on the back of the painting, where Nazi bureaucrats noted the source in black marker: "Rosenberg Bordeaux." A corresponding Nazi catalog card kept in Berlin files notes the painting's location: "HG" — Hermann Goering's collection.
The Art Museum's documentation efforts, which uncovered much of this extraordinary history, continue.
The museum also owns Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's Pensive Young Brunette (1845-50), seized by the Nazis in 1940 from Alphonse Kann, who amassed a huge collection at his townhouse at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, near Paris. Kann fled to London, and in 1945, a large part of his collection, including the Corot, was recovered by the Allies.
Kann sold the painting to Stern, who gave it to the Art Museum in 1963 (along with the Courbet and other works).
Researcher Herbert says she doesn't know who recovered the Corot, only that "a French Monuments Man named Hubert de Brye oversaw [its] return" to France.
A third Art Museum piece, a 17th-century Italian tapestry designed by Antonio Gherardi, was in the collection of Altkunst Antiquitäten, a Jewish-owned gallery in Berlin. The gallery owners were forced out and their art liquidated on Goering's orders in 1935.
The Art Museum, which received the tapestry as a gift in 1960, learned of the circumstances of the forced sale, and in 2010 informed the descendants of the gallery owners, reaching an amicable financial agreement with them.
"They were thrilled," said Herbert, who added that the family members were unaware of the existence of the Philadelphia tapestry. "They didn't know about this."