In 1942 Deane Keller, a pudgy, bespectacled, 42-year-old Yale professor, ached to fight the Germans in Europe. He tried to enlist in the Marines, but they rejected him because of his eyesight.
Then a friend insisted he sign up for a new kind of service. He should find priceless cultural treasures the Germans had stolen or damaged and return them to their rightful owners.
And so Deane Keller became a Monuments Man. He traveled 60,000 miles through Italy by jeep, saved priceless frescoes in Pisa during a battle and delivered 13 freight cars of stolen art to Florence.
Of the experience, he wrote, “Life is full of mysteries in which unfathomable forces produce mystical results.”
Deane Keller left behind his beloved wife and his two-year-old-son. The many letters he sent them were crucial documents in telling the forgotten story of the Monuments Men. The New Haven Museum in 2015 exhibited Keller’s works and photographs of the material he collected in Italy.
His story was made into a book, Saving Italy, The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis, and then a film, The Monuments Men.
Deane Keller was born Dec. 14, 1901 in New Haven, the son of a Yale sociologist, Albert Galloway Keller and Caroline Louise Gussman. His father wanted him to study science and history; he wanted to study art. But he acquiesced and earned a B.A. in science and history from Yale – then went to study painting at the Art Students League, much against his father’s wishes. He earned a B.F.A. at Yale and then the Prix de Rome, which allowed him to study for three years in Italy.
He returned to start teaching at Yale and married Katherine Hall, one of his students, and they had a son, Deane or Dino.
After the United States entered World War II and the Marines rejected him, he received a letter from his friend, Yale University Art Gallery director Theodore “Tubby” Sizer. Sizer told him about the first ever unit formed to preserve artistic and cultural treasures. Formally known as the Fifth Army, Manuscripts, Fine Arts & Archives (MFAA) Section, it was also known as the Monuments Men.
By the time Keller set foot in Italy, the Allies and Axis raced to control Europe’s cultural heritage: by stealing it, destroying it or displaying it.
“In wartime, when the thoughts of men fighting nations are concerned primarily with winning battles and the consequent fear, animosity, hatred, blood and death, it seems incongruous and inconsistent that the commanders of opposing armies should give attention to culture and Fine Arts,” wrote Keller. “Yet in both the Nazi-Fascist and Allied Armies, perhaps for the first time in history, there were men whose sole job it was to preserve the heritage and culture of nations being torn to shreds by the ravages of war.”
There were 345 Monuments Men (and women) from 13 nations spread throughout Italy. They were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators.
They had a mission to safeguard cultural treasures from war damage. And after the war ended, they were to return art stolen from stolen from wealthy Jews, museums, universities and religious institutions. They succeeded in tracking, finding and returning more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Axis forces.
The Germans called them thieves and Jews intent on looting Europe’s treasures.
Deane Keller often felt alone and isolated in the Army. He was described as “introverted, sensitive and extremely hard working.”
He seemed to travel everywhere in Italy, encountering devastated towns. The stunned and starving citizens hid in caves during battles between the Allies and the Nazis.
“When I see a little boy Deane’s age with one leg, the other blown off by a bomb … It makes me feel terrible. I got sick to my stomach and sick at heart,” he wrote.
He brought baking supplies to the town of Gaeta, lugged pipe to help repair the town’s water works and delivered freshly baked bread. In Gaeta, as in so many other Italian towns, he found someone who knew about the town’s history and art. He then posted ‘Off limits’ signs on historic and cultural buildings to prevent troops from entering them.
He arrived in Pisa with the Allied Army as it advanced and the Germans retreated. Both sides were shelling the city. Keller realized the shelling exposed and then damaged the priceless 14th-and 15th-century frescoes in the city center. He then directed civilians and troops to erect a temporary canvas roof over the naked walls and scattered pieces of frescco.
He described the experience in a letter to his wife:
How does one feel when the bombs are crashing all around? I PRAYED I tell you and I was trembling like a damned leaf and once it lasted 1.5 hours and I thought of you and Deane and our life and what this all was. The window panes were rattling and some fell out. And in Pisa when the .240s were flying over every night at 8.15 or 10.15 or 12.15. We had that to look forward to every night.
After the war, Keller belonged to a smaller group that stayed in Europe to oversee the restitution of stolen art. According to the Monuments Men Foundation,
During that time they played instrumental roles in rebuilding cultural life in the devastated countries of Europe by organizing temporary art exhibitions and musical concerts.
Keller directed the return of 13 freight cars of stolen art discovered near the Austrian border.
He left the service in 1946. For his extraordinary efforts in art recovery he received the United States Legion of Merit. He also received the Member of the British Empire medal, the Crown of Italy Partisan Medal, the Medal of the Opera from Pisa, and the Order of St. John the Lateran from the Vatican.
He then returned to Yale’s School of Fine Arts, where he spent 40 years teaching and painting more than 500 portraits. His works can be seen today throughout New Haven. They’re now in City Hall, Knights of Columbus headquarters, Fusco Corporation and in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University.
Deane Keller died April 12, 1992 in Hamden, Conn.
With thanks to Saving Italy: The Race To Save a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis by Robert Edsel and New Haven’s Monuments Man: Deane Keller by Laura Macaluso in Connecticut Explored. Photos: “Deane Keller cropped” by Monuments Men Foundation: Keller, Capt. Deane bio notes. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. Deane Keller with the eight-ton statue of Cosimo de’Medici, in the gardens of Poggio ai Caiano outside of Florence, February 1945. Deane Keller papers (MS 1685). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. Charlie Bernholz (left) and Deane Keller (right) standing with David, Galleria Accademia, Florence, Summer 1945. Deane Keller papers (MS 1685). Also Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.
This story was updated in 2022.