The Shadow Master

On July 15, 1945, Rembrandt’s 339th birthday, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam re-opened with the most emotionally charged exhibition in its history. Called “Weerzien der Meesters,” or “Reunion with the Masters,” the show gathered one hundred and seventy-five paintings that had spent the five years of the Occupation hidden in bunkers. During those five years, private collections were looted and museums stripped of their greatest works. For all the average person knew, these treasures, like so many others, had been stolen or destroyed in the Nazi terror. Now they were making a triumphant return to the center of Amsterdam. From The Hague came Fabritius’s little goldfinch, Potter’s big bull, Vermeer’s pearl earring. From Haarlem came the great Hals group portraits, which were displayed alongside the Rijksmuseum’s own collection — including, of course, the nation’s famous Rembrandts.  In 1939, with war looming, the huge Night Watch, eleven by fourteen feet, had been taken to a castle in North Holland, where it was stored in a vault of reinforced concrete. The location proved too dangerous. In 1940, when the Germans invaded, the masterpiece was covered with a canvas borrowed from a local farmer and hastily removed to a bunker in Castricum, closer to Amsterdam: a journey of fifty kilometers that took twelve hours. At one point, when an enemy plane appeared overhead, its escorts took refuge in neighboring fields, leaving the great painting alone in the middle of the road.  When it finally reached its destination, its caretakers discovered that it was too large for the entrance, and they had to roll it up. Finally, in 1942, it was taken to a special storage site near Maastricht, where it was kept in a limestone quarry, thirty-three meters underground. The director of the Frans Hals Museum, Henk Baard, recalled the scene: “Through the slow

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