Two Williams legends helped to recover and return some of Europe’s greatest art treasures plundered by the Nazis.
LIFE WENT ON AS USUAL after World War II for Charles Parkhurst ’35 and S. Lane Faison Jr. ’29. That’s the way it was for so many men of their generation: They took their anger, fears and the burdens of their experiences, folded them up and stored them away. There were no pictures of war comrades in the offices of these two Williams art history legends, nor were there any medals or memorabilia on the walls of their homes. They might have answered questions about the war if asked, but they rarely discussed it unprompted.
The only indication of their service was something they both wore proudly on their suit lapels, if the occasion warranted it: a thin, red ribbon that signified their induction as Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor, the highest award bestowed by France. For decades that ribbon was the only trace of their remarkable service in recovering and returning some of Europe’s greatest art treasures plundered by the Nazis during the war.
Only in the past 20 years have their efforts—and those of nearly 350 other men and women who comprised the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA) of the Allied forces in Western Europe—fully come to light. The group, collectively known as the Monuments Men, worked together to protect monuments, art and other cultural riches from destruction in the waning days of World War II under the guidance of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Roberts Commission. In the years that followed, Monuments officers returned to their rightful owners more than 5 million artistic and cultural treasures stolen by Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving the culture of civilizations was without precedent.
While the story was told in Lynn H. Nicholas’ 1994 book The Rape of Europa, later adapted as a documentary film in 2006, it’s being introduced to a new generation and a much wider audience in early 2014 as actors George Clooney and Matt Damon headline a Sony Pictures feature film, Monuments Men, based on a 2009 book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel.
Edsel, founder and president of the Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, interviewed Parkhurst and Faison for his book in 2006. He met Faison on Nov. 1 at an assisted-living facility in Williamstown, nine days before Faison’s death on Veteran’s Day and just 15 days shy of Faison’s 99th birthday. Edsel had been warned that Faison was in declining health and might only be able to speak for 10 minutes. Instead, the men ended up speaking for nearly three hours.
“It was one of the most moving moments of my life,” Edsel recalls.
“I did not go to that interview expecting Lane to be as cogent as he was.”
Faison’s son Gordon, who attended the interview, was in disbelief while his father reviewed pictures of stolen artwork and fellow soldiers featured in another Edsel book, Rescuing Da Vinci, and recalled in vivid detail names and anecdotes dating back to the 1940s. Faison’s memory of that time didn’t fail him: It all checked out to be correct.
As Edsel rose to say goodbye and extended his hand, Faison grabbed it, pulled Edsel to his chest and said, “I’ve been waiting to meet you all my life.”
Hailing from 13 different nations, 345 men and women participated in MFAA activities. No more than 120 served at any given time from 1943 through the 1950s.
The early Monuments officers, who received their orders from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to protect Europe’s cultural treasures as the Allies made their way through Nazi lines and across the continent, were the most unlikely of heroes. It was the first time in history an advancing army attempted to mitigate cultural damage while fighting a war, and the men and women charged with this mission were few and ill equipped. Among their ranks were museum directors, curators, art scholars, educators, artists and archivists. Most had established careers and families. Their average age was 40.
Parkhurst was among the early recruits. A Columbus, Ohio, native, he came to Williams with an interest in geology and paleontology but was inspired by Professor Karl E. Weston to major in fine arts and pursue a career in the field. Later Parkhurst received a Master of Arts at Oberlin College and then earned a Master of Fine Arts at Princeton University.
Parkhurst was working as a research assistant (he later became an assistant curator) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1941 when he enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve and served as a gunnery officer in Australia, the European theater, the Indian Ocean and Panama. Given his background in art, he was transferred to the MFAA at the Army Supreme Headquarters in Frankfurt after the Allied victory in Europe, joining a group of more than 30 officers charged with recovering looted artwork, safeguarding it and returning it to its owners.
They worked in extremely poor conditions. “These guys were lucky if they had a field radio,” says Edsel, who interviewed Parkhurst the same day he interviewed Faison in 2006. (Parkhurst died on June 26, 2008, at age 95 at his home in Amherst, Mass.) The soldiers often had to rely on their wits for food, housing and transportation. Parkhurst found himself rigging Jeeps and other vehicles as he and his cohorts investigated the 1,036 repositories of looted artwork they located throughout Germany and former German-occupied territories.
Parkhurst spent months evacuating art from Neuschwanstein Castle, and his experience building roads and bridges in Alaska right after his graduation from Williams was especially helpful while working along treacherous paths through the Bavarian Alps. He assisted in the packing and shipping of 49 freight cars filled with art loot recovered from the castle and 13 carloads from another cache.
One of his most significant finds was Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture, The Burghers of Calais, which had been abandoned by the Nazis in the snow-covered forest surrounding Neuschwanstein, apparently because it was too unwieldy to maneuver up the mountain.
As Parkhurst told the Williams Alumni Review in 1995, shortly after the release of The Rape of Europa, another high point of his service was discovering the crown jewels of the Bavarian royal family, which date to about the year 1000. He convinced the caretaker of the castle where the jewels were found to tell him where they were hidden: deep down inside a massive tower, in some sort of pantry, behind a wall of shelves filled with jars. As he stated in the Review:
“We carefully removed a portion of the shelves to reveal a secret room, and when we crawled in, there were the crown jewels, 15 cases of them!”
Faison’s role was no less significant. Also a student of Weston’s, Faison joined the Williams faculty in 1936 before enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1942. He was stationed in Brigantine, N.J., instructing soldiers on the use of radar to track enemy planes, when a call came asking if he wanted to transfer to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, for “duty involving professional knowledge of art history and travel in Europe.” While the earliest Monuments officers were busy locating, securing and returning art, no one had the time to investigate the bigger picture of German policy, including who was in charge of the looting and who were the players involved.
Francis Henry Taylor, then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, handpicked Faison for the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit. Together with James Plaut, the first director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and Theodore Rousseau, who later became a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Faison was to uncover the story behind the art thefts. Faison spent months in highly secret, specialized OSS training and then joined Plaut and Rousseau at the salt mines at Altaussee, just east of Salzburg, Austria, where thousands of artworks were stored deep within its tunnels. Among the most valuable items recovered from the mines—those the Nazis insisted were for “safekeeping” — were the 15th-century Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament by Dieric Bouts and a Michelangelo sculpture of Madonna and child, stolen from the Church of Notre Dame in Bruges, Belgium.
“It’s a very, very beautiful spot,” was how Faison described Altaussee in a 1994 Williams oral history interview. He had visualized the salt mines, which had been worked since Roman times, as being underground, but “the entrance was at the top of quite a high mountain. … They start at the top and go down and down and down, spreading out. Colder than you can imagine, and damp and wet.”
Surprisingly, those were ideal conditions for storing art. “Cold-wet is all right, believe it or not,” he explained. “And hot-dry, cross your fingers, would be all right, too. Anything in between would be lethal.”
Wearing winter gear and oilskins in mid-July, he and his fellow investigators rode tiny rail cars deep into the mines to cavernous areas where canvases were stacked and piled like books. Faison, Plaut and Rousseau lived in a summer house in the valley below, where they interrogated Nazis to uncover their roles in the looting or to find out what they knew. Along with prisoners, piles of documents arrived daily, sometimes in duplicate or triplicate. “The Germans, of course, were too efficient for their own good,” Faison said. “There were so many carbon copies, each one signed, and thus official, that it was pretty hard for us not to have come by the information we wanted.”
As they interviewed their captives and sifted through records, they slowly pieced together the enormous magnitude of the Nazi looting operation. Hitler, himself a failed artist, planned to build a museum complex in Linz, Austria, to display his collection of stolen artworks. The main repository for items destined for this Führermuseum, as it was called, was Altaussee. All told, the mines contained 6,755 paintings (including 5,350 by old masters), 1,039 prints, 230 drawings, sculptures, tapestries, furniture, arms and armor, theater archives, prints, watercolors, sculptures, bronzes, coins, ironworks and a variety of other objets d’art. There were an additional 11 smaller repositories with items destined for display at Linz.
Faison personally interviewed the wife of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command. (Faison calls her “Brunhilde” in a diary found by one of his sons.) He also sat face-to-face with Hermann Voss, an art historian and director of the Dresden Gallery, who was special commissioner for Hitler’s art collection. In 13 detailed reports and four Consolidated Interrogation Reports, Faison, Plaut and Rousseau outlined all aspects of the Nazi plans. Rousseau took on the subject of Goering’s personal art collection, Plaut wrote about the organization of the looting under the Einstazstab Rosenberg (a special task force devised by Alfred Rosenberg, chief ideologue of the Nazi regime), and Faison undertook the task of compiling the official history of Hitler’s art collection and the plans for the Führermuseum. The assignment left him “flabbergasted,” Faison told the audiences he lectured in his final years.
His 287-page report, on file with the National Gallery of Art, is remarkable in its accuracy and thoroughness, says Edsel. “Considering what they could know in 1945 or 1946, they did a great job figuring out what they had,” he says, pointing out that the Soviet Union held numerous documents in its possession, which it would not share.
“Looting always accompanies war, but Nazi looting, and especially Nazi art looting, was different. It was officially planned and expertly carried out. Looted art gave a tone to an otherwise bare New Order,” Faison wrote in his report.
He recommended that the Sonderauftag Linz, or Linz Special Commission, which collected art for the Führermuseum mostly through theft and forced sales, be declared a criminal organization and its members stand trial. He also suggested that German art dealers and agents who made purchases on behalf of Linz be investigated individually.
“With its immense resources and its official prestige, the Sonderauftag Linz tried to bring art under the shadow of the Swastika,” Faison wrote in Consolidated Interrogation Report No. 4. “For a time, it did.”
Faison, Parkhurst and many of the other Monuments Men were so deeply committed to their mission that when the American government attempted to transfer German-owned works to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., they took a stand that could have resulted in military court martial or otherwise jeopardized their professional careers.
As many of the plundered artworks began to arrive in 1945 at a collection point in Wiesbaden, Germany, for their eventual disposition, Parkhurst and others flatly refused an order from superiors to pack and send the items in their custody to the United States. A preliminary list called for the transfer of 102 works from the Kaiser Friederich Museum in Berlin, plus works by Watteau, Daumier, Chardin and Manet from other collections. In fact, when Col. Henry McBride, then the administrator for the National Gallery, threatened Parkhurst, telling him he could not afford to take such a position because he had a wife and two children, Parkhurst walked out on him.
“We believed first of all that the language was the same the Nazis had used when they looted, which was ‘protective custody,’ Parkhurst said in a 1982 oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “We thought that was a bad omen, and, secondly, we didn’t think it was right.”
Parkhurst was among the MFAA soldiers who signed the Wiesbaden Manifesto in November 1945, stating, “From our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long or be the cause of so much justified bitterness as the removal for any reason of a part of the heritage of any nation, even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war.” The New Yorker published a story about the Manifesto shortly thereafter, which resulted in a highly public and vigorous debate over the fate of the German-owned art. The works eventually were sent to Washington, D.C., in December 1946 to be held at the National Gallery, where they were displayed in a five-week show visited by a million people. They then toured some major U.S. cities briefly, where another 10 million visitors had a chance to view them. All were returned to Berlin by 1949.
Parkhurst’s wife, Carol Clark, who is on leave as the William McCall Vickery 1957 Professor of the History of Art and American Studies at Amherst College, says Parkhurst was most proud of signing the Wiesbaden Manifesto and resisting the plan to transfer German art to the U.S. However, like Faison, he “didn’t feel he was doing anything out of the ordinary,” Clark says. “He realized the importance of the works, but it was just a job.”
After The Rape of Europa, Parkhurst and Faison began speaking more publicly and openly about their experiences. Each compiled his papers: Parkhurst’s are at the Archives of American Art along with some of Faison’s; other papers by Faison are at the National Gallery and in Williams’ Archives & Special Collections. In a 1999 speech at Columbia University, Parkhurst introduced the Wiesbaden Manifesto, saying, “I have always found this letter a moving document, which stirs me even as I re-read it. Lynn Nicholas commented, ‘The Founding Fathers would have been proud.’”
With the war ended, Faison and Parkhurst returned to civilian life. Parkhurst, disillusioned with America’s attempt to remove masterworks from Germany, did not return to the National Gallery but instead joined the Albright Gallery (now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.y.) and then taught at Princeton and Oberlin. years later, he became the director of the Baltimore Museum.
Upon his retirement he returned to Williams, where he served as deputy director of special projects at WCMA from 1983 to 1988 and co-director of the museum from 1983 to 1984. He taught at Williams until 1992 and then became director of the Smith College Museum of Art, where he finished his career.
Faison returned to Williams at the war’s end to continue a teaching career that would span 40 years. In addition to chairing the art department for most of that time, he was director of WCMA from 1948 to 1976. Because he and fellow professors Bill Pierson and Whitney Stoddard ’35 had been away serving in the war, there were only 19 students enrolled in the art history program when Faison rejoined the faculty. Within a few years, though, that number skyrocketed to 255. Much like Weston before him, Faison was a magnet for students.
He was called back into service in 1950 to close down the last remaining collecting point in Munich. This time his wife and four sons came along. Years later he said that what he learned as a Monuments officer helped him as a teacher of art history.
Faison, together with Pierson and Stoddard, eventually trained a generation of prominent curators and museum administrators, and collectively the trio became known as the Holy trinity while their progeny gained recognition as the Williams “art mafia.” Among their students were Thomas Krens ’69, former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation; John R. “Jack” Lane ’66, president of New Art trust; Glenn Lowry ’76, director of the Museum of Modern Art; Roger Mandle ’63, former president of the Rhode Island School of Design; Earl A. Powell III ’66, director of the National Gallery of Art and chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts; the late Kirk Varnedoe ’67, former curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art; and the late James N. Wood ’63, former director of the Art Institute of Chicago and head of the J. Paul Getty trust.
The script of the upcoming Monuments Men movie follows the trajectory of Edsel’s book, focusing on seven of the original officers who went behind enemy lines immediately after the Allied invasion of Europe to protect artwork from additional looting and destruction during battle and to prevent Nazi soldiers from carrying out orders to destroy everything in their possession as the Reich fell. The cache at the Altaussee salt mines was among the repositories saved from bombing.
Matt Damon plays the role of Lt. James Rorimer, Parkhurst’s immediate supervisor. George Clooney, who plays George Stout, co-wrote the script and co-produced the film. As of late October he was not yet doing publicity for Monuments Men and was unavailable for comment, so it remains to be seen whether Faison and Parkhurst will be portrayed on screen.
Edsel, who was on location and acted as an adviser to the film, hinted that there might be a glimpse of Parkhurst and Faison’s roles, adding, “I think the things they did are well represented in the film.”
Not that Parkhurst or Faison would be looking for themselves on screen, had they lived to see the movie. As Chris Faison recalls his father saying over the years: “you know, people have said I was a hero, I was great. No. I was put in a great situation. I was put in the middle of history.”
Denise DiFulco is a freelance writer based in Cranford, N.J.
The National Archives is publishing an online series about individual Monuments Men. Read their post about S. Lane Faison Jr. ’29.
Photo of The Burghers of Calais by Rodin © J. Paul Getty Trust, Johannes Felbermeyer Collection, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (89.p.4)