Guarding our Treasures:
The Nelson-Atkins’ Role as a Safe Haven during World War II
In the weeks after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, enemy bombing raids on the American mainland became a distinct possibility. Museums and private collectors began to consider how to keep their collections safe in case of invasion. In response to this growing concern, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art served as a repository for a number of the nation’s most important public and private collections.
At the geographical center of the country, Kansas City was far from the threat of invasion, and its well-developed transportation facilities allowed for easy access. Moreover, the Nelson-Atkins had the extra space required to store additional works of art. Although the permanent collection had grown quickly since the museum opened in 1933, it was not yet large enough to fill its three-story Beaux-Arts building, and its storage areas were under-utilized. Parts of the west wing and the upper floor gallery spaces, while not yet finished as galleries, were already outfitted with climate control systems and could serve as additional storage rooms.
On November 10, 1939, Director Paul Gardner of the Nelson-Atkins received a telegram from the Hoogendijk art dealers in Amsterdam: “The Dutch collector Birnbaum considers shipping his pictures to America and I pleaded loan to your museum…. About 15 pictures of small size and extremely fine…. Highly recommend you this opportunity.” This was the first of many telegrams and letters to the Nelson-Atkins from collectors and museums searching for a place to keep their art safe during the war. It is unclear why Birnbaum chose the Nelson-Atkins as a safe haven, but it may have been the result of his association with Harold Woodbury Parsons, an adviser on European art for the museum who had visited Birnbaum’s collection in 1934.
After a delay of eight months, during which Birnbaum emigrated from London to the United States, eight paintings arrived at the Nelson-Atkins in July 1940. This superb group included works by Rembrandt (Dutch, 1606–1669), Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, 1696–1770) and Portrait of Susanne Fourment by Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577–1640).
The first American collector to contact the Nelson-Atkins was financier Robert Lehman in December 1941. Lehman’s collection was particularly strong in early Italian paintings, an area which was underrepresented in the Nelson-Atkins’ permanent collection at the time. Gardner was particularly pleased with the group of 17 wood panel paintings, as he wrote to Lehman: “It is difficult to find words to express our great pleasure in having these superb paintings here. Our Italian group is especially weak and your fine panels fill in many obvious gaps. I am waiting until a larger group will have arrived before placing them on exhibition and do assure you that there will be an enormous interest in them.” Lehman’s collection included paintings by artists such as Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1431–1516), Hans Memling (Flemish, ca. 1430–1494) and Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, d. 1482). Today most of the works Lehman lent to the Nelson-Atkins are part of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The first museum to request safe haven for its collection was the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C., known today as The Phillips Collection. Director Duncan Phillips’ correspondence with Gardner reveals his sense of urgency and concern about the artworks in his care: “It is gratifying and a matter of relief to me that the William Rockhill Nelson Art Gallery of Kansas City is both able and willing to take a fairly large number of our best paintings…during the danger of air raids.” The Phillips group included one of the largest pictures sent to the Nelson-Atkins during the war, the Luncheon of the Boating Party by Pierre Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919), which measures 51 1/4 x 69 1/8 inches. Hung in a gallery by itself, the Renoir was widely covered in the press, and visitors crowded the gallery to see this important painting.
The largest group of works sent to the Nelson-Atkins from a single source was a collection of 45 contemporary paintings from the French government that had been on display at the San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition in 1939–40. With the occupation of France by Nazi Germany in 1940, it was not safe to send the paintings home and the French Consulate agreed to keep them at the Nelson-Atkins. This group included works by artists such as Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947), Suzanne Valadon (French, 1865–1938) and Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940).
In total, more than 150 works of art from more than a dozen collections took shelter at the Nelson-Atkins during the Second World War, all of which returned to their owners after the war. The final picture to leave was Rubens’ Portrait of Susanne Fourment from the Birnbaum collection, which had been in the first group to arrive. It departed Kansas City on May 13, 1946. The lenders of these artworks were grateful to the Nelson-Atkins for its assistance during such a difficult period, and the museum benefited from their generosity after the war. Robert Lehman, for example, later gave a 15th-century Italian Renaissance painting, a portrait by British artist John Hoppner and two sets of Italian maiolica to the museum. Kansas Citians benefited as well with the opportunity to view some of the most significant works of art in American and European collections without ever leaving home.
Department of European Painting and Sculpture
Telegram from Hoogendijk art dealers to Paul Gardner, November 10, 1939, NAMA Registrar's Office, David Birnbaum loan file.
Kansas City Star, September 15, 1940, clipping, NAMA Registrar's office, David Birnbaum loan file.
Kansas City Star, January 25, 1942, clipping, NAMA Registrar's Office, Phillips Memorial Gallery loan file.
Letter from General Consul of France to Paul Gardner, December 26, 1941, NAMA Registrar's office, French Collection loan file.
John Hoppner, English (1758-1810). Portrait of Emily St. Clare as a Bacchante, 1806-1807. Oil on canvas, 94 3/8 x 58 ½ inches. Gift of Robert Lehman, 45-1.