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Protecting Antwerp’s masterpieces during World War II

Protecting Antwerp’s masterpieces during WWI

The looming threat: Safeguarding cultural treasures

In the late 1930s, the spectre of war loomed ominously over Europe. By 1938, it was evident that Belgium would not remain untouched by the approaching conflict. Camille Huysmans, the then-mayor of Antwerp, took decisive action, commissioning museums and libraries to prepare secure storage for their invaluable collections. Among these institutions was the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), which, thanks to foresight during its late 19th-century construction, already had bomb-proof basements equipped for such emergencies.

German occupation and the role of Kunstschutz

When Germany invaded Belgium in May 1940, the military occupation began, and with it came concerns about the fate of cultural heritage. Contrary to popular belief, the German military government took steps to protect public art collections. Art theft by the occupying forces was primarily directed at private, often Jewish-owned, collections. Public collections were largely spared and even safeguarded under the auspices of the Kunstschutz. This initiative, led by Graf Wolff Metternich, aimed to preserve cultural heritage during conflict. Metternich himself inspected the KMSKA’s basement and assured its protection, as recorded in the diary of the museum’s curator, Arthur Cornette.

Relocation to the Ardennes: A new haven

By early 1942, the tides of war shifted with the United States joining the conflict, increasing the threat of invasion. Kunstschutz officials ordered the relocation of major art treasures from Bruges and Antwerp. The chosen refuge was the castle of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne near Dinant, selected for its remote location and formidable, thick walls. Over seventy paintings, including masterpieces by Rubens, Frans Hals, and Teniers, along with the renowned “Shrine of Saint Ursula” by Hans Memling, were transported to the castle. Additionally, hundreds of chests containing valuable books and historical documents made the journey.

Antwerp's masterpieces were protected during WW2 in the Castle of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne
The refuge: the Castle of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne

Life in Lavaux-Sainte-Anne: Challenges and safeguards

The task of overseeing these treasures fell to Herman Bouchery, the young curator of Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp. He, along with his family, endured harsh living conditions at the castle, which lacked running water. Despite the personal hardships, the castle provided an optimal environment for the art, with its thick walls and modern air dryers installed in the cellars – an unprecedented feature for Belgian museums at the time.

Herman Bouchery and family
The protector: Herman Bouchery, his wife Lilly, and children Elly and Marc

To protect the priceless collection, a small contingent of German soldiers was stationed at the castle. This, however, attracted the attention of the Belgian resistance, which led to several attacks on the castle in August 1944. Bouchery himself was injured during one such skirmish.

The dangerous journey: Evacuation amidst war

As the Allies advanced following their Normandy landing, plans were made to evacuate the art from Lavaux-Sainte-Anne to Brussels. Bouchery was apprehensive about the move due to the ongoing conflict. His fears were justified when, during the third transport on August 26, 1944, American fighter planes mistakenly attacked the convoy near Dinant. While the paintings survived unscathed, important archival materials and a harpsichord were lost, and lives were tragically taken.

protecting Antwerp's masterpieces during WWII
The removal vans prepare for a dangerous journey.© RR

Return and aftermath: Preservation and damage

Belgium was liberated shortly after the evacuation, but the art remained in Brussels for safety. This proved fortuitous as V2 bombs later struck Antwerp, damaging several museums. The art treasures finally returned to Antwerp on June 10, 1945. Unfortunately, the conditions in Brussels had not been ideal; many books and documents suffered extensive damage due to poor storage practices and moisture ingress. Despite these setbacks, the majority of the Antwerp and Bruges heritage survived the war intact, a testament to the efforts of those from both sides who were keen to protect it.

The Shrine of Saint Ursula from 1489 survived both journeys
The Shrine of Saint Ursula from 1489 survived both journeys

Read the book

This account of protecting Antwerp’s masterpieces during WWII is based on Bert Govaerts’ book, “Erfgoed op de vlucht – Duitse bezetters, Vlaamse meesterwerken, een Waals kasteel,” published by Manteau. It chronicles the extraordinary measures taken to safeguard Belgium’s cultural heritage during one of history’s most tumultuous periods. Thanks to Tim Peeters for drawing my attention to this story.

protecting Antwerp's art during World War Two

Visit the Castle of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne

A few years ago I paid a visit to the castle of Lavaux-Saint-Anne and enjoyed a delightful walk in the surrounding countryside. Check out my two previous blog posts on the Castle of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne and a 12 km walk around Lavaux-Sainte-Anne.

Where to stay in Lavaux-Sainte-Anne

Two excellent accommodations in the village of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne are Chez Stéphane and Chez Christelle, while something a bit different in the neighbourhood is La Tiny House de Nanou.

12 thoughts on “Protecting Antwerp’s masterpieces during World War II”

    1. As far as I can see, the answer is no at the moment Rita. It has only recently been published in Dutch, so maybe an English or French version is coming later.

  1. A fascinating and amazing story, Denzil! Not so sure about Germany’s noble motives. After all, their plan was to conquer Europe and beyond. Public art collections would become part of their heritage.

  2. Difficult times for both people and treasures. The castle seemed the best place so pity moved around. But war and allies and enemies fighting hard.

  3. Thank you for drawing attention to my book, but there’s one important error in the summary of the tale. The château was never protected by GERMAN soldiers. This was left to men of the Belgian Gendarmerie. It’s a bit confusing, but even under the German occupation Belgium had some armed forces left (the local police and the national Gendarmerie). Thus, when the resistance attacked the castle, it was, sadly enough, Belgians against Belgians.

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