U of I Art History Professor Was Among “Monuments Men”
By Jeff Bossert
A new movie on the efforts to preserve artwork stolen during World War II is helping to highlight the work of a former University of Illinois art history professor.
He was one of the ‘Monuments Men’, more than 300 men - and women - who devoted their time in the mid-40’s rescuing artifacts stolen by the Nazis.
Rae taught at the U of I before and after his time in the military, and retired in 1979. His papers were left to the university after his death in 2002, when his daughter, Sarah Rae, reached out to archivist, William Maher.
“So I contacted them, and they willingly took all of his papers, lesson plans and so forth," she said. "I was hesitant at first to donate them, but then Mr. Maher said they could put them on line, and other people could have access to them. And I think that that’s where the push is now, and I’m really glad some of this appears on line, just so more people can learn about this and appreciate it.”
Sarah and her brother Tom say they’ve come to better appreciate what their father did in more recent years, but say he was modest.
"But gradually, he started speaking a bit more about what he was actually doing," Tom Rae said. "I don't ever remember the term 'Monuments and Fine Arts Division', it just seemed to morph as he would discuss it into something - much as with every other position he had in the Army - 'I had the skill, so they called me do to this."
Among the artifacts he helped save, Rae went to Budapest to help rescue the Crown of St. Steven, or the Holy Crown of Hungary, which was eventually brought to Fort Knox, Kentucky for safekeeping until President Jimmy Carter had it returned to Hungary in 1977.
Sarah and Tom grew up in the 1960's, but still recall their father telling his share of stories about his time rescuing art.
"I mean, you talk about a dream job, for a young art historian who has just earned his PhD, and then he's in the Army, and then he's the Bavarian Office Chief, and he gets to come face to face with these art masterpieces, and get them back to their rightful owner," she said. "Of course, he's been able to come face to face with (Leonardo) DaVincis and Rembrants and (the work of Henri) Matisse, and I'm sure that it had an effect."
Based on stories her father told, Sarah Rae says the new George Clooney film ‘"The Monuments Men" does a ‘pretty good’ job of profiling their efforts.
There’s also a Monuments Men Foundation that seeks to honor their legacy, and further education efforts.
On February 7th, Illinois 15th District Congressman John Shimkus announced he's co-sponsoring H. R. 3658, to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the men of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program.
According to the congressman, eleven of the 350 Monuments Men have connections to Illinois, including seven in his district.
They included Seymour Pomrenz, whose studies include the University of Illinois, Champaign native Lewis Williams, Rankin native Henry Newton, and former University of Illinois Professor Turpin Bannister.