17 Oct, 2021 @ 10:00
3 mins read

The man who moved monasteries: How an American art dealer bought up Spain’s Medieval heritage and shipped it back home

El Claustro Desmantelado Del Monasterio De Ovila (1)

BEFORE the Great Depression and the onset of World War II brought them down to Earth, America’s wealthiest individuals showed no signs of restraint while spending their riches. 

The treasures of Europe were often the target of this exorbitant spending, as many in America’s wealthy class, such as John D Rockefeller and William Randolph Hearst, held a distinct fascination in all things European, especially artifacts from its medieval era.

As a result of this fascination, numerous pieces of artwork, manor houses, libraries, and even monasteries made their way across the Atlantic throughout the early 1900s. 

Spain played a particularly prominent role in this trend, as Americans romanticized Spanish culture as particularly authentic, premised on the stereotype that Spain was stuck in a pre-industrial era, untouched by modern technology.

This perception, coupled with the fact that many Americans believed they had the right and responsibility to take from other cultures to enrich their own “superior” one, led to a feeding frenzy on Spanish items. 

Arthur Byne

And at the heart of this frenzy stood art dealer Arthur Byne (pictured above). Though less well-known than some of his clients, the American’s self-described life mission to bring old works of art from Spain to America earned him both plaudits and scorn among the Spanish society he immersed himself in. So what is the story behind the man who proved integral in fueling this movement of Spanish artifacts across the Atlantic?  

Born in 1884 in Philadelphia, Byne studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, he became a curator at the Hispanic Society of America, a New York based institution dedicated to showcasing Spanish culture. 

Byne’s new role saw him move to Spain in 1910. While his initial purpose was to photograph and index Spain’s medieval structures for the society, he began making a name for himself as an authority on Spanish art and architecture. The Spanish government recognized his expertise, granting him the title of Knight Grand Cross in the Order of Alfonso XII in 1927.   

Yet Byne was always interested in bringing the works he found back to America, drawing the ire of Spanish historians and journalists. As he aligned himself with those wealthy Americans who sought Spanish works, Byne sold them statues, ironwork, parts of castles and cathedrals, and even a royal carpet.

Perhaps his most notorious act involved orchestrating the purchase, dismantling, and removal of Spain’s St Bernard de Clairvaux and Santa Maria de Ovila monasteries at the behest of his client William Randolph Hearst, a media mogul with a costly affinity for medieval European structures.  

Not only were the buildings themselves expensive, so too was the process of bringing them to America. In 1926, Hearst purchased the St. Bernard de Clairvaux in the Segovia province of central Spain for $35,000. To ship it across the Atlantic, Byne first had to build 40 miles of road and 20 miles of railroad. These were used to take the monastery, whose pieces were divided into over 10,000 crates, through the countryside and to a Spanish port, where they were then shipped to New York City.

The removal of the monastery prompted local outcry as villagers tried on multiple occasions to stop workers from taking what they viewed as a precious part of their community. Yet Byne was able to take advantage of Spain’s cash-strapped government, who ignored the protests, allowing him to finish the job.

Ruinas Ovila 1
Remains of the Santa Maria de Óliva monastery in Trillo, Spain (Source: Sevegi, Wikimedia Commons)

Removing the Santa Maria de Ovila from Trillo in central Spain (purchased for about $100,000) five years later proved even more complicated. In response to Byne’s previous activities, the government had enacted strict historical preservation laws that made the removal of certain Spanish artifacts, including monasteries, illegal. 

The rules were weakly enforced, however, as Byne was able to convince the government, still struggling economically, that removing the monastery would bring in new jobs. The process indeed required man power, as getting the monastery to a port this time required not only construction of a railroad, but also the development of a pulley-cable system to allow a raft carrying the stones to cross the Tagus River. The parts were then shipped to San Francisco, arriving there in 1931. 

Some, including Hearst and Byne, argued that actions like removing these monasteries would help preserve European cultural monuments at a time where many had been neglected or damaged by conflict. But Hearst’s purchasing decisions might more accurately be described as cultural theft for personal gain, given he intended to incorporate the monasteries into his mansions. 

Yet even this self-indulgent ambition did not come to fruition. With the advent of the Great Depression, Hearst and many others had to rein in their spending. This meant Hearst gave up his vision of reconstructing the monasteries, and they instead ended up sitting in their respective docks for years.

It took 26 years for the St Bernard de Clairvaux monastery to see the light of day again, when it was rebuilt in Miami in the hopes it would become a tourist attraction. On the opposite coast, the Santa Maria de Ovila monastery remained on the San Francisco pier until 2013, when it was partly reconstructed by the New Clairvaux Abbey in California. Meanwhile, the monasteries’ original homes hold only the remains deemed unfit for Hearst’s purposes, serving as a reminder of what was lost.  

And for many Spaniards, Byne, who died in a car accident in 1935, might also serve as a reminder of what the country lost during a time when cultural treasures were uprooted at the command of the wealthy, even those who lived across the Atlantic Ocean.  


Staff Reporter

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