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March 9, 2014

March 9, 2014: Letters to the editor

Feds hid priceless art in Biltmore mansion

The movie ‘Monuments Men’ currently playing at the local theater tells the story of a detachment of military personnel in WW II who were trying to recover stolen art works plundered by the Nazis and stored in various locations. In America it became a concern of the National Gallery of Art in Washington that the war could come to these shores, and the art could be in jeopardy of an enemy attack.

The curator, David Finley, knew about the Biltmore estate near Asheville, N.C., and he knew its owner, Edith Vanderbilt. The house was in a remote location and was relatively fireproof, and Finley asked Edith Vanderbilt if it would be possible to bring the gallery’s art to her house for safe keeping during the war. She agreed it would be all right.

The art, by Rembrandt, Raphael, Anthony Van Dyck and others, came to Biltmore by train in a January 1942 snowstorm. In all, 62 paintings and 17 sculptures made the trip. They were put in the mansion’s unfinished first floor music room at the back end of the main hall. Why the room was unfinished by the builder of the house, George Washington Vanderbilt II, is uncertain, since it was located in one of the most prestigious spots in the house. The walls were mere bare brick, but steel doors were installed, and bars were put up over the windows, even though on that side of the house it was 30 feet down to the ground, and armed guards were posted around the clock. Curtains were placed over the doors to further conceal everything, and the whole project was accomplished in the utmost secrecy. During this time the house was closed to tours.

In 1944, with the threat of the war decreasing, the artwork was returned to Washington in just the opposite way it arrived — this time with great fanfair, a motorcycle escort and sirens blaring.

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