The new George Clooney-directed film "The Monuments Men" is based on a true story about a group of art enthusiasts and their mission to protect precious artwork from Nazi theft and Allied bombardment in World War II.
In December 1998, WBUR reporter Fred Thys interviewed one of the real Monuments Men, S. Lane Faison, in his Williamstown, Mass., home. Thys and Faison spoke at length about Faison’s trek to track down art treasures across Europe. Here, lightly edited, is Fred’s original story:
Lane Faison sits on the couch in his living room in Williamstown. Behind him, through the large windows, you can see Mount Greylock.
As the Berkshires settle into winter, Faison’s recollections settle upon the autumn of 1945, right after the end of World War II.
Faison was part of a U.S. intelligence effort to make sure some very beautiful things got back to where they belonged.
He gives lectures on it now, with slides of an extraordinary collection: the one Adolf Hitler put together, works of art from all over Europe that the Allies were sending home to countries newly liberated from the Nazis.
There are Vermeers and Rubens. Hitler was partial to Dutch and Flemish Old Masters.
And then, Faison holds up a slide of a DC-3 airplane.
“Guess what that’s got inside it when that picture was made,” Faison says. “It’s on its way to Brussels.”
“The Ghent Altarpiece?” I venture.
“And the Michelangelo statue,” Faison adds.
American forces in Germany were returning the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck and Michelangelo’s "Bruges Madonna" and other treasures.
The Van Eyck and the Michelangelo had been found in a salt mine in Austria. Over a cup of tea in his kitchen, Faison describes Hitler’s unusual treasure trove.
“It was very damp and very cold no matter what the temperature was outside,” Faison recalls. “And to get on these little cars and after a while, you come to a great big vaulted cavern. There were 6,000 paintings, approximately. We do know that, but furniture, don’t even mention it, acres of furniture and sculpture and library books.”
All of it crated and stacked on scaffolding.
All of it belonging, if ever so briefly, to Adolf Hitler. Hitler planned to build a hill of museums in the Austrian city of Linz, and he would fill them with the booty from this mine.
Faison’s job was to document where this art came from and how it found its way to Hitler. The young Navy lieutenant was assigned to the O.S.S., the U.S. intelligence service of the day. He arrived in Austria in July 1945. He spent the next three months in a summer home in Salzburg, interrogating Hitler’s agents.
One time, an interrogation led Faison to a stash of art in southeastern Germany.
“They went up in the loft and came down with… it’s a roll, not in frames, a roll,” Faison recalls. “We opened them up: Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Renoir, about eight of them."
Faison says Hitler’s buyers were all over Europe, but especially in Paris.
“Well, they arrived with suitcases full of money and they had auctions all the time,” he says. “It was a very, very busy art market, terrific. Lots of French were scared to death and wanted to sell their stuff, or find somebody, if they were Jewish.”
Faison says art dealers were a key part of Hitler’s operation.
“The more aggressive, the more business they did,” he says. “Most of them were German dealers, but they found all kinds of French dealers who were very happy to take part in all this.”
But only half the Nazis’ art was bought.
“Probably much more than half of it was looted,” Faison says. “Just plain confiscation. They walked in. It’s a Jewish collection, that’s the major source, right there. And if it’s enemies of the state, OK. If it’s a house left empty, tough. Walk in.”
During his summer in the Austrian Alps, Faison became acquainted with many of Hitler’s confiscators. Hitler’s No. 2 art man in France stood out.
“There was a young fellow named Bruno Lohse,” Faison recalls. “He was young. I think he was at most 28, or something like that. He was very bright and he had good art training. He knew his art history. You know, energetic and gung-ho. No humor, but not unattractive.”
The young German told soldiers which homes to raid. He knew which French families owned the best works of art.
“He organized looting expeditions,” Faison says. “'Go there. Be sure you come back with this, this and this picture.' Usually the owner had fled. If he was lucky, he was in Portugal by this time, but the servants are there, you see, kind of quaking.”
Nazi leaders were such eager collectors that Lohse had to walk a fine line. He had to make sure the best works of art were saved for Hitler, but he also sought to please the second-highest man in the Nazi party, Hermann Goring.
“And he did everything he could to steer things to Goring,” Faison says. “But when you get up to Vermeer of Delft, you had to watch your step.”
Faison pulls out a slide of Goring, huge in his flashy uniform, blowing through a museum like a whirlwind.
“Goring wasn’t interested in the Impressionists,” Faison says. “He only wanted Dutch paintings, Flemish paintings and German paintings, and French 18th-century nude paintings.”
Hitler kept much of the art he took in castles and monasteries in Bavaria and in the salt mine in Austria.
Faison says the U.S. returned the art to the countries where it came from, but it was up to the governments of those countries to find the original owners or their heirs.
"The chief problem for restoring to the owners is that the owner was last heard from at Auschwitz," Faison says. "That's the simple answer. And who are the descendants, if any? Maybe the whole family went."
A few wealthy families, like the Rothschilds, were able to retrieve their collections quickly, but most of the art languished in the cellars of the Louvre, waiting for someone to claim it.
"Here [is] this immense quantity of pictures, thousands and thousands of pictures," Faison says. "And the Louvre cellars got filled up."
There was so much art accumulating in the Louvre that the French government farmed it out to other museums.
"Over time the Louvre cellars were freed up by sending things out to the provincial museums of France," Faison says.
Faison says Americans wanted to forget the war as soon as it was over.
He tells the story of one of the lieutenants who had served with him in Austria. Upon coming home, Faison's friend submitted an article on the Nazis to the Reader's Digest. It was called "Loot for the Master Race."
The editors of Reader's Digest rejected the article. They said it was not timely anymore.
On Dec. 15, 2006, Thys also reported Faison’s obituary, outlining the impact the Williams College Museum of Art director and professor, who died at age 98, had on the museum world that loved him and learned from him.
That story picked up Faison's life when he returned to the U.S.:
After the war, Faison returned to his teaching position at Williams College.
There, Faison and other legendary art history professors would make their mark on their own country's culture by encouraging generations of young men, many of them athletes who did not think of themselves as intellectuals and who certainly did not think of themselves as museum directors, to rethink their plans.
Men such as Arthur Wheelock.
"Nobody felt like this was an effete kind of a world or that it was something that was separate or different," Wheelock recalls. "It was somebody that everybody at all levels, and athletes or non-athletes or whoever, would feel comfortable in."
Wheelock is the curator of Northern Baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.
Faison had a similar impact on Glenn Lowry.
"I think when I went to Williams, I had assumed that I was going to be pre-med and that I would have a certain kind of trajectory through the world," Lowry says. "And before I knew it, I realized that I absolutely wanted to become an art historian. And it was because Lane had a way of making art history seem vital and essential to the way we lived."
These days, Lowry is the director of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York.
Faison's transformation of young lives happened first in the classroom.
New York art dealer David Tunick studied with him in the mid-1960s.
"He started off by showing a work of art upside down," Tunick recalls. "That was one thing that I learned from him that I loved. Look at it upside down. Look at the structure. Look at the composition."
When Williams became co-ed in the 1970s, young women joined Faison's classes.
They were not about theoretical articles, but rather involved looking at and handling the works of art in Williamstown's museums: the Clark Art Institute and the Williams College Museum of Art.
[The late] Jim Wood, the longtime director of the Art Institute of Chicago [and later president and CEO of the Getty Trust in Los Angeles] and someone Faison called one of his most brilliant students, says it was this focus on the art itself rather than writing about it that encouraged all these athletes to forget about medical school and ultimately become museum directors.
"The way he taught art history, so constantly referring to the object itself, and its own expressive qualities, I think it was almost inevitable that I gravitated towards museums," Wood says. "And that's why he's been such an influence on the museum profession, I think."
[Wood died in 2010.]
Faison also emphasized that art objects were made by a certain culture at a certain time, and placing objects in a historic and economic context was something his former students said was relatively new back then.
Faison did not just see his students as people in a classroom. He took an interest in their whole lives.
Jack Lane's, for instance.
"I did not turn out to be a lawyer or a banker or a sheepherder or a ski boot salesman; I turned out to be an art museum director. I would never have thought. Well, he totally changed my life, and I'm all the happier and all the better for it."
Lane is the [now-retired] director of the Dallas Museum of Art.