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Joseph C. E. de Beer ( ? -1953 )

Joseph C. E. de Beer was a Belgian museum curator and art historian. He spent much of his career before World War II as curator at Sterckshof Castle in Deurne, Antwerp. Originally the property of the municipality of Deurne, the castle was transferred into private hands and converted into the Museum of Flemish Civilization in 1938. De Beer was chosen to live inside the castle as Honorary Curator of the collection, which he immediately set about expanding and improving. Due in part to his efforts, the museum soon boasted an impressive assortment of objects showcasing Belgian archaeological, natural, and artistic histories.

During World War II, tens of thousands of church bells were seized from all across Europe by the Nazis, who intended to melt them for ammunition. In May 1943 the Belgian Ministry of Education created an interdepartmental Commission for the Protection of Bells appointing de Beer as its President. The Commission’s first act was to survey the country’s thousands of historic bells, ranking each according to a letter system. “A” bells, those cast after 1850, were reluctantly sent to Germany while “D” bells, those created prior to 1720, were hidden. Any bell dating before the fourteenth century was buried. Each bell was photographed and classified in a large inventory maintained by the Commission in the hopes that one day it would hasten the return of Belgium’s bells.

As the war raged on, de Beer and his colleagues worked to track the movements of Belgian-owned church bells. De Beer frequently crossed paths with the Monuments Men active in Belgium, including British Monuments Man Maj. Ronald Balfour, who noted in October 1944 that de Beer carried with him “a mass of somewhat disordered information and a fine collection of photographs of war damaged buildings and of bells taken by himself.” Following the German surrender, thousands of surviving church bells filled an area in Hamburg harbor the size of an American football field. In summer 1945, the British MFAA began the arduous task of sorting and identifying each object. De Beer arrived in Hamburg as soon as possible with the Commission’s inventory and photographs in hand, an invaluable tool which over time restored the sound of chimes to many of Belgium’s churches.
Following his return to Belgium, de Beer resumed his work as curator of the collection at Sterckshof Castle. Due to his devoted efforts, the museum began receiving much-needed state funding in 1951. It was only after de Beer’s death in February 1953 that control of the castle and its treasures were taken over by the Province of Antwerp.

The Foundation is very interested in learning more about Joseph de Beer’s life, as well as his military service as a Monuments Man. If you have any information, please contact abottinelli@monumentsmenfoundation.org.