The Monuments Men

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David Cornelis Röell, Jonkheer ( 1894-1961 )

Museum director and curator, David Cornelis Röell, jonkheer was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands in 1894. He studied law at Utrecht University before moving to Paris to pursue his interest in art history at the Sorbonne and the École du Louvre. His talent for research and discerning attention to detail caught the eye of Frederik Schmidt-Degener, the newly-appointed Director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Within just three years, Röell rose from assistant in the Department of Paintings to Curator of Paintings. During this time, he undertook the preparation of a comprehensive catalogue of the Rijksmuseum’s collection of paintings, which was published in 1934. In 1936 Röell became Director of the municipal museums of Amsterdam, including the Stedelijk Museum, the Amsterdams Historisch, and the Willet-Holthuysen Museum. Röell was very active at the Stedelijk Museum, where he reorganized the collection and mounted several successful exhibitions on modern art.

During World War II, Röell served as the personal art advisor to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. In June 1945 Röell helped establish the Stichting Nederlandish Kunstbezit (the Foundation for Netherlands Artistic Property) under the authority of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Fine Arts, and Science. The Ministry then appointed Röell as Chairman of the council overseeing the Foundation.

As the leading representative of the Dutch government during restitution negotiations, Röell participated in the recovery of thousands of works of art and other cultural objects looted from the Netherlands by the Nazis. He was particularly active at Zandvoort and Maastricht, the repositories for art belonging to multiple museums in Amsterdam, The Dutch Royal Archives, the photographic archives of The Hague, and stained glass from Sint Janskerk (the Great Church at Gouda), among other prominent collections. In 1942, when the Allied advance placed Zandvoort within an active combat zone, German forces evacuated the items to a bunker among the sand dunes near Maastricht. In Steenwijk, a small town north of Maastricht, German workers constructed a building, the so-called “Rijksschuilkelder,” to store and display the most prominent items. Visitors to the Rijksschuilkelder included prominent German officials and Dutch Nazis. Following the liberation of the area on April 17, 1945, the bunker’s contents were inspected and secured by Monuments Men Hans Jaffe and Maj. Ellis K. Waterhouse. The keys to both the bunker and the Rijksschuilkelder remained in the protective custody of Röell until the contents were returned to Amsterdam in August 1945. In celebration, Röell organized a hallmark exhibition on the works of Vincent van Gogh at the Stedelijk Museum. He remained involved in MFAA operations until 1950.

Röell succeeded his mentor Schmidt-Degener as Director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1945. Due to damages sustained during the war, the museum was in desperate need of repair. Under the leadership of Röell, the building was extensively renovated and reorganized according to modern techniques. By 1952, the entire museum was reopened to a grateful Dutch public, who attended a long string of successful exhibitions curated by Röell, most notably Rembrandt (1956) and Medieval Art in the Northern Netherlands (1958). In 1958, just one year before his retirement, Röell was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Amsterdam University.

D.C. Röell died in Amsterdam on December 3, 1961.