The Man Behind "The Monuments Men": David Finley and the Roberts Commission

Posted on: February 24th, 2014 by Katherine Flynn 5 Comments

In 1956, Finley brought his case for saving the historic Patent Office Building in downtown D.C. before President Eisenhower. He was successful, and today the building houses the National Portrait Gallery. Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gallery Archives.
In 1956, Finley brought his case for saving the historic Patent Office Building in downtown D.C. before President Eisenhower. He was successful, and today the building houses the National Portrait Gallery.

The Monuments Men” tells a true-life story of wartime brotherhood and the search for stolen art in WWII-era Europe. But behind the gallantry brought to life by George Clooney and Matt Damon was the work of a quieter hero -- one so quiet, he doesn’t even have a role in the film.

Here at the National Trust, we know David Finley as one of our founding fathers, a government insider with strong passions for art and preservation. Earlier in his career, though, he served as vice chairman of the Roberts Commission (named after chairman Justice Owen Roberts of the Supreme Court), spearheading the initiative to establish the MFAA branch of the U.S. military -- the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program that would send curators and art historians into overseas war zones to protect and reclaim priceless pieces of cultural history.

“Finley was maybe the greatest salesman of his generation, the greatest lobbyist,” says David A. Doheny, author of David Finley: Quiet Force for America’s Arts. Doheny credits Finley with helping to convince high-ranking government officials, including Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy and President Roosevelt himself, that protecting art and history in one of the world’s cultural epicenters was part of the U.S. military's responsibility.

James Rorimer (Matt Damon’s character in the film) overseeing the recovery of artworks at Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany in 1945. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration
James Rorimer (Matt Damon’s character in the film) overseeing the recovery of artworks at Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany in 1945.

Luckily, his pleas had a receptive audience.

“You had these people in place at the very top that were able to understand what was at stake here -- an incalculable loss,” Doheny says. One of the mission’s initial goals was also to make sure that Allied forces wouldn’t bomb any other historic sites like the fourteen-centuries-old Benedictine Abbey in Italy’s Montecassino, destroyed during a 1944 battle.

The film, of course, takes some liberties with history for the sake of a streamlined narrative. For example, Frank Stokes, played by George Clooney (and based on the real-life George Stout, an art conservationist at Harvard’s Fogg Museum) didn’t initiate the MFAA, but rather was later recruited for the mission by Finley and others. In the spring of 1944, as the war was coming to a close, Stout was sent to Europe to lead the technical work of art conservation in the field.

Some of the men accompanying him were James Rorimer (portrayed in the film as James Granger by Matt Damon,) sculptor Walker K. Hancock (Walter Garfield, played by John Goodman,) and Robert Posey, an architect (re-christened Richard Campbell and played by Bill Murray). There were 11 men in the original assembly of MFAA officers -- seven Americans and four Brits -- as well as many other military personnel involved on the periphery.

“It’s easier for people, and certainly for a film, to focus on blood and guts and bombs going off and action in the field rather than what does on in Washington behind the scenes,” Doheny says. “But bottom line, these guys never would have had a chance to do what they were doing if it hadn’t been for Finley.”

Finley wore many hats throughout his long career. He was the first director of the National Gallery of Art and a driving force behind the creation of the National Portrait Gallery, as well as the chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The son of a congressman from South Carolina, he practiced law in Philadelphia and served in WWI.

Later in life, he befriended Jackie Kennedy while she was First Lady, and they worked together to preserve Lafayette Square and restore furnishings and art collections in the White House. In a condolence letter to Finley’s wife after his death, Kennedy (by then Kennedy Onassis) wrote, “I will never forget Mr. Finley’s generosity of spirit. There can be few who were like him.”

Despite all of this, Doheny considers Finley’s crowning achievement to be his work with the Roberts Commission.

“He needs all the publicity he can get,” Doheny says. “He kind of flew under the radar. He just wanted to get something done. That was the number one secret to his success.”

So although Finley, who died in 1977, doesn’t have a role in the big-budget Hollywood film made about his work, you can imagine that he would have wanted it that way.

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Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.

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5 Responses

  1. Marc Fetterman

    February 28, 2014

    Thanks for your piece on David Finley. In the article, you mention a sculptor “Walter Hancock.” I believe you are referring to sculptor “Walker K Hancock.” Here is his obit: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/01/02/arts/walker-hancock-97-sculptor-on-war-and-religious-themes.html

  2. presnation

    March 5, 2014

    Thanks Marc! Good catch. I corrected the post above.

    Best,
    Julia Rocchi
    Associate Director, Digital Content

  3. Renee Jolly

    March 17, 2014

    Thanks for the article on David Finley. One quick note- you refer to George Stout as an “art conservationist” but the correct term is “art conservator.” The term “conservationist” is specific to the preservation of the environment and wildlife.
    Thanks.

  4. Paula Hatfield

    March 18, 2014

    Thank you for giving more information that makes the movie even MORE important! This article and the movie are inspirational and motivational. They help keep the fires in the trenches of preservation and education burning on the local level.
    Paula
    From a small W TX town

  5. Steve Sager

    March 21, 2014

    Paula,
    Great article inspired by an excellent movie that was inspired by the incredible people in the article…
    No doubt you meant to say “what GOES on in Washington”, rather than what…DOES on in Washington.
    Though “does on” is an interesting concept.
    Steve