George Stout and Nazi loot

Worcester Telegram and Gazette 7 January 2010

By Albert B. Southwick

The Germans for four years had systematically looted the art museums and collections of the continent. They had cached the loot in a number of places, sometimes in coal mines that were booby trapped.

I may have met George Stout (1897-1979) a couple of times when he was director of the Worcester Art Museum in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but I never knew him well. I certainly never knew anything about his extraordinary accomplishments during and after World War II in salvaging and cataloguing the immense quantities of priceless art objects that the Germans had looted from the museums of Europe.

An article in Harvard Magazine, passed on to me by Bud Lane, brought me up to date. It is excerpted from a new book, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert M. Edsel. I have not read the book, but I certainly plan to.

Like Jim Welu, current director of WAM, Mr. Stout was born in Iowa. He served in World War I in a hospital unit, went to Harvard, and worked for a time at its Fogg Museum, where he became an expert in art conservation. In 1943 he applied for active duty with the U.S. Navy, and soon was a key member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA), charged with finding thousands of items of stolen art and straightening out the chaos in the museums of Europe left by the Germans. It is hard to appreciate the immensity of the task that Lt. Cmdr. Stout and his colleagues faced.

The Germans for four years had systematically looted the art museums and collections of the continent. They had cached the loot in a number of places, sometimes in coalmines that were booby trapped. While the war wound down, the MFAA had little logistical support from the military, not even a jeep. It was understaffed. But gradually, Mr. Stout’s group made headway.

On April 6, 1945, U.S. troops captured the Merkers mine complex in Thuringia. Two of Mr. Stout’s colleagues arrived two days later, and he arrived shortly thereafter. It was packed with paintings and sculptures worth probably billions of dollars at current prices. The team later discovered two more major Nazi troves, at Neuschwanstein and Altaussee, deep under the Austrian Alps. There were hundreds of other smaller ones.

As the Harvard Magazine article puts it: “When George Stout left Europe in August, 1945, after little more than 13 months, he had discovered, analyzed, and packed tens of thousands of pieces of artwork, including 80 truckloads from Altaussee alone. He had organized the MFAA field offices at Normandy, pushed command headquarters to expand and support the monuments effort, mentored the other Monuments Men across France and Germany, interrogated many of the important Nazi art officials, and inspected most of the Nazi repositories south of Berlin and east of the Rhine. … And during his entire tour of duty on the continent, he had taken exactly one and a half days off.”

One of his colleagues, Lincoln Kirstein, said that George Stout “was the greatest war hero of all time — he actually saved all the art that everybody talked about.” In 1946 he transferred to Japan and became chief of the Arts and Monuments Division there. On his retirement, he was awarded the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal.

He returned to the Fogg Museum in 1947, and later that year became director of WAM. From Worcester he went on to become director of the Gardiner Museum in Boston, where he stayed until his retirement.

As far as I know, when he was director of WAM, he rarely talked about those exciting times or his heroic accomplishments. Unlike Francis Henry Taylor, whom I did know, I do not remember Mr. Stout as a flashy personality.

But he left his mark. His purchases for the museum were always carefully checked for origin, a tradition upheld at WAM ever since. Unlike some other museums, WAM has never been plagued by accusations and lawsuits over art objects illicitly acquired abroad.

In 2004, a question arose about a WAM painting by Jan van Goyen that the museum had acquired from a dealer. Nick Goodman questioned whether it had originally been looted from his family’s collection in the Netherlands after the Nazi invasion. After a careful study done with the full cooperation of WAM Director James Welu, Mr. Goodman agreed that the museum had acquired it rightfully. He commented, “My family is pleased to have the van Goyen on display at such a fine museum.”

George Stout, a stickler for proper procedure, would have been pleased. Worcester should remember him as one of the notables who honored this city with his presence for a time.

Albert B. Southwick’s column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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