The Second World War’s effect was felt in every aspect of people’s lives during the period. It was also significant for the art world as Nazis stole art estimated to be worth over $2.6 billion as of 1945. When the Allied forces started bombing German cities in 1943, he ordered these artworks to be hidden in storage. The most notorious of such storage places was a salt mine in Austria.
Salzwelten Altausse is Austria’s largest salt mine and has been active since 1147. It was a perfect hidden storage for the artworks as the mines were deep underground, protecting them from aerial bombings. The mine’s temperature is around 8 degrees Celsius, the humidity is approximately 75%, and there is no sunlight.
The space in the mine is around 40,000 square meters, and art experts lived there as they worked on these pieces. Some were damaged during transport and restored in the mine while the war raged, and other works were protected to ensure they were in good shape despite the storage conditions.
The items stored in the mine were estimated to be around 6,500 oil paintings, gold, and weapon collections. The collection comprised many famous and valuable artworks from different parts of Europe. Notable paintings include the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Breughel. Other familiar works like the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert van Eyck and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges were also stolen. The collection’s worth spiked monetarily and non-monetarily by the Rothschild family jewels and the Monumental Bible from St. Florian’s Monastery.
Notably, Hitler issued the Nerobefehl in 1945 as the Allied forces neared Berlin. This order, known as the Nero order, was for destroying German infrastructure to prevent the Allied forces’ advancement. The order was interpreted to include transportation facilities, supply depots, and even the art pieces stored in the mine. Hitler rescinded the order, but the governor of the area, August Eigruber, ordered the mine to be bombed with its artworks.
The operation was disguised as eight bombs were snuck in crates labeled “marble” and taken into the mine. The workers were suspicious of the new containers and carefully carried them to the mine entrance, where they detonated the bombs and pretended they blew up the whole mine.
Afterward, the Monument Men arrived and transported the collections to Munich, where they tried to get all the items back to their previous owners. It was a race to get as many artworks out of the mine before Altausse was turned over to the Soviets. They recovered 6,577 paintings, 954 prints, 230 drawings and watercolors, 137 sculptures, and 129 arms and armor.
Historians have since analyzed the role of the old mine and the miners in preserving artistic history. The surviving works from the old mine now have greater value than their monetary worth. In 2019, the mine opened a permanent exhibition titled “The Fortune of Art” at the location where the stolen art had been hidden. Visitors can find some memoirs from the time and witness the mine at work as it is still active.