James J. Rorimer

James J. Rorimer
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section

September 7, 1905 – May 11, 1966

Two Soldiers kneel next to a box of recovered objects. The man on the left holds up an small object in his right hand for the camera to see.

1st Lt. James J. Rorimer, left, and Sgt. Antonio T. Valin examine recovered objects in Neuschwanstein, Germany, in May 1945. U.S. Army Signal Corps

During World War II, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a wartime Nazi task force to appropriate cultural property, collected as many pieces of valuable art as possible. Formed in 1940 by Nazi Party leader and philosopher Alfred Rosenberg, the goal of the ERR was to collect or steal art and other cultural resources in order to create a museum that would have been established in German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria. In response to this cultural theft, the U.S. Army established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program to track down and recover looted pieces to return them safely to the person or institution from which they were taken. Thanks to the work of Capt. James J. Rorimer and his colleagues, many of these pieces and monuments remain for people to enjoy to this day.

James Joseph Rorimer was born in 1905 in Cleveland, Ohio. Throughout his childhood, Rorimer’s family traveled to Europe. These trips encouraged his future passion for the museum field and interest in art. He attended high school at the University School in Cleveland until 1921 when he left to study abroad in Paris. After two years, he returned to the United States to finish his studies at the University School. Rorimer continued his education at Harvard University where he studied medieval art and graduated in 1927.

Like many of the other members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA), Rorimer worked in the New York City museum scene. After leaving Harvard, he went to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (popularly known as the Met) where he focused on their collection of medieval art, which was largely in storage. In 1929, he became the assistant curator of Decorative Arts. In an effort to expand the museum and add more space for medieval artwork, he began to work with philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. Due to this partnership, Rockefeller donated four acres of land to the state of New York for the construction of the Met Cloisters. Located in the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, New York, the Cloisters became America’s first medieval art museum. In 1934, he became the curator of Medieval Art at the Met, then when the Cloisters opened in 1938, he became the curator of the Cloisters. Rorimer became one of the first advocates for using radiography to study pieces of art. In 1931, he published the book “Ultraviolet Rays and Their Use in the Examination of Works of Art” on the subject.

In May 1943, Rorimer was drafted into the Army. Due to his experience in the museum field, he was one of the first members of the newly formed MFAA, nicknamed the Monuments Men. The responsibility of the Monuments Men was to protect all cultural resources in conflict areas. Rorimer arrived in England for training in 1944 and was on the ground in France by August of that year. Rorimer was fond of Paris and took part in the liberation of the city by the Allies. While in Paris, he worked with Rose Valland, an employee at the art gallery Jue de Paume, used by the Germans as the headquarters of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg. Valland worked at the gallery before the Nazi takeover and stayed on to spy on the operation. Through her position, she overheard important information about stolen pieces of art. She then brought this information to Rorimer. Thanks to her help, Rorimer and his team were able to find a large cache of art in Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. As the headquarters for the ERR, the castle contained the card files and records of stolen artwork in Europe. The discovery laid the foundation for returning looted artwork back to the individuals and institutions from whom it had been stolen. The Monuments Men also uncovered Hitler’s personal collection of artwork at the Altaussee salt mine. The collection, taken from museums and private collections throughout Europe, was stored for Hitler’s planned Fuhrermuseum to be built in Linz, Austria. Some of the pieces included Jan Van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece,” Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” and Édouard Manet’s “In the Conservatory.” Before the end of the war in 1945, Rorimer transferred to the headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Army. Due to his work during the war, Rorimer received the Bronze Star, the Belgian Croix de Guerre, the French Legion of Honor, and the Cross of the Commander of the Order of Denmark.

After the war, Rorimer returned to work at the Cloisters where he became the director in 1949. In 1950, he published a memoir on his time with the Monuments Men called “Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.” He became the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1955. Under his direction, museum visitation tripled. Rorimer also developed the Met’s Thomas J. Watson Library into one of the most extensive art history libraries in the world. Additionally, he made important acquisitions into the museum collection with pieces such as “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer” by Rembrandt and the “Mérode Altarpiece” by Robert Campin.

Rorimer remained the director of the Metropolitan Museum until his death in 1966. His diaries, as well as his papers, are in the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Due to his devotion to art and preservation, Rorimer made sure that people could enjoy many artistic masterpieces for generations to come.

Ellora Larsen
Education Specialist


“Biographical Note | James J. Rorimer papers, 1921-1982, Bulk 1943-1950.” Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Accessed June 4, 2021.

Bompane, Molly. “The Art of War and the War of Art.” U.S. Army. June 16, 2020.

Bowling, Melissa and James Moske. “In the Footsteps of the Monuments Men: Traces from the Archives at the Metropolitan Museum.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. January 31, 2014.

“James J. Rorimer” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 25, no. 1, Part II (Summer 1966).

“James Joseph Rorimer.” Monuments Men Foundation. Accessed June 4, 2021.

“Monuments Men: Recovering Europe’s Plundered Art.” Accessed June 4, 2021.

Rorimer, James J. Monuments Man: The Mission to Save Vermeers, Rembrandts, and Da Vincis from the Nazis’ Grasp. New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2022.