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Return of cultural heritage by the Monuments Men and Women Foundation

For more than 10 years, the US Monuments Men and Women Foundation, based in Dallas/Texas, has been working on the repatriation of works of art and objects of cultural and historical value: In the spirit of the famous “Monuments Men and Women” of World War II, the non-profit organisation tracks down lost works of art and arranges their return. Sometimes the available information is not sufficient to determine the exact owner.

An anonymous package with nine historic coins and an unsigned letter to the Monuments Men and Women Foundation were the beginning of the contact between the Foundation and the Museum Ulm: the writer of the letter, an American veteran of the Second World War, received the coins from a comrade shortly after the war. The latter had smashed a display case in a German museum in 1945 and taken the pieces, including two silver thalers from 1643 and 1716. The anonymous letter writer had the coins made into pendants. In his memory remained a place name that the former comrade is said to have mentioned: Ulm.

In the meantime, the anonymous veteran sees the story through different eyes: “The coins properly belong to the people of the town from which they were taken, presumably Ulm. They are another casualty of World War II. Hopefully their return after sixty years, and the story of what happened to them, will make some small amends.”

On the other hand, a popular wooden sculpture depicting the Ulm inventor and aviation pioneer Albrecht Ludwig Berblinger can be proven to have reached the USA as a barter object. It was brought home by Lieutenant James “Jim” K. Kunkle, who is now 99 years old. Lieutenant Kunkle was a pilot of the P-38 and P-51 of the 401st Fighter Squadron, which completed 36 combat missions in Germany and the Ardennes. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his military service.

During the post-war occupation of Germany, Kunkle lived in Ramersdorf in the Munich area. The sculpture was brought to his house wrapped in cloth by an unknown woman in exchange for packets of cigarettes. “We are happy that this sculpture, which was brought to the United States as a war souvenir, is now back in the country where it belongs,” said Lieutenant Kunkle and his wife Ruth. “We want to thank the Monuments Men and Women Foundation for working with our family and many other families of World War II veterans.”

“We are grateful to the Kunkle family and the anonymous veteran who sent us the coins for acting as trustees of these cultural objects and working with the Monuments Men and Women Foundation to find a way to return them to Germany,” said Foundation President Anna Bottinelli. “Ulm suffered unimaginable losses during the Second World War. But today, in a small but not insignificant gesture, we are showing the nations’ goodwill towards reconciliation by returning these works taken from Germany during the war.”

The Museum Ulm also lost holdings in the period before and after the end of the war: many exhibits were moved out into the surrounding countryside for protection, but not all returned to the museum building after the war. Other works remained in Ulm and were damaged or destroyed during the bombings. Not all losses have been recorded to this day: Whether the nine historical coins actually came from the municipal collections in Ulm can neither be proven nor denied today due to the poor recording situation. Nevertheless, it is a concern and a pleasure for the Museum Ulm to support the valuable work of the Monuments Men and Women Foundation by taking over the objects and to make their commendable contribution to the preservation of cultural identity tangible.

The Monuments Men and Women Foundation honours the legacy of the historic World War II Monuments Men and Women and their unprecedented and heroic work to protect and preserve civilisation’s most important art and cultural treasures from armed conflict. The Foundation was founded on 6 June 2007 by philanthropist and New York Times bestselling author Robert M. EdselIn (*1956) in Dallas/Texas. In the first ten years of its existence, the Foundation succeeded in making the Monuments Men and Women known worldwide through film (including 2014’s “The Monuments Men” by and starring Oscar winner George Clooney, based on Robert M. Edsel’s book of the same name), television and books, honouring their military service by awarding them the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian honour in the United States – and preserving their legacy through a partnership with the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Thanks to this partnership, archives and artefacts from the Foundation have been made available to students and scholars around the world. In October 2020, the museum broke ground on its Liberation Pavilion, which will feature a permanent exhibition on the Monuments Men and Women, the first of its kind.

As it enters its second decade of operation, the Foundation will now focus on longer-term goals. In addition to locating and returning works of art and other cultural assets to their rightful owners, the Foundation will use the legacy of the Monuments Men and Women to reach out to young people in particular through special programmes, challenging them to become the Monuments Men and Women of tomorrow.

More information also at www.monumentsmenandwomenfnd.org

See also a TV report by SWR Aktuell from 28 July 2022.

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