Death of a Monuments Man

  • Updated: February 7, 2014 - 4:40 PM

Walter Huchthausen’s obituary, as it appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune, Aug. 19, 1945:

Nazis Kill Minnesotan on Trail of Art Loot

Two jeep-riding art connoisseurs from Minneapolis have helped recover $2 billion worth of stolen European art treasures in Germany.

One gave his life for art’s sake.

Dispatches that told the death of Capt. Walter J. Huchthausen in Germany last April mentioned him simply “killed in action.”

On the hunt for loot

The captain, former assistant professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota and son of the late Rev. Jul Hucht­hausen, pastor of Trinity First Evangelical Lutheran Church, actually was on the trail of an art cache.

Huchthausen was one of the group of AMG [Allied Military Government] officers who helped plot maps of art centers so that the artillery could avoid damaging historical material.

With the Ninth Army as it crossed the Rhine, Huchthausen dashed ahead of the American forces in a jeep to make observations that would help the Army to preserve some art treasures.

Killed by machine gun

Only bare details have come back to his friends at the university. He was killed by fire from a German machine gun nest. The jeep driver was wounded but lived.

Huchthausen was graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1928. He studied at Harvard and abroad and returned as a member of the staff in 1940.

Still at the job of locating and returning to rightful owners the paintings and sculpture stolen by the Germans is Capt. K. Parker Lesley, former assistant fine arts professor at the University of Minnesota.

Lesley, known here as an art historian, also has been assigned to write an art section for a history of World War II being compiled by a special board of review.

Likes his job

“I’m enjoying myself tremendously, Lesley told his wife, Miriam, 1915 Humboldt Av. S., in recent letters. He is attached to the Fifteenth Army.

An enormous amount of work must be done. Before Allied armies drove into Germany, fine arts and archives officers had been informed through secret channels of the existence, and usually the location, of some 500 caches of looted art in Hitler’s Reich.

As soon as a hoard of treasures was uncovered, the officers were summoned.

They would:  (1) mount guard; (2) seek the aid of civilians who had special knowledge of the cache; (3) hunt out records of the stored objects; (4) check on their condition and, if necessary, remove them from damp storage places; and (5) make an inventory.

Claims are studied

Recovered objects now are being moved to two huge depositories and several smaller ones. Some claims for restitution have been presented. Some owners are Americans.

Principles of restitution provide that art and other precious materials stolen outright or “bought” with managed currency shall be returned to the rightful owners.

It has been suggested that objects destroyed or lost be replaced by comparable objects in German collections.

Monumental Men

Author Robert Edsel notes that fewer than a dozen so-called Monuments Men, primarily volunteers, were on the ground in France shortly after the D-Day invasion in June 1944, with another 25 — including Walter Hucht­hausen — added for work in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria by the end of the war 11 months later.

Several Monuments Men would go on to play key roles in American culture, including Pvt. Lincoln Kirstein (co-director of the New York City Ballet, 1948 to 1996), Second Lt. James Rorimer (director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1955 to 1966) and Lt. George Stout (director of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 1955 to 1970).

Last year, Edsel published “Saving Italy” (W.W. Norton, $28.95), an eye-opening account of the Monuments Men assigned to rescue and preserve Italy’s art and architectural treasures.

Learn more at www.monumentsmen.com.

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