Retired CSU professor's father helped recover art stolen by the Nazis

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 9, 2014 

Jamie Howard, retired chairman of the Columbus State University Art Department, has a scar on his right leg, just above the ankle, a reminder of childhood adventures accompanying his father in post-World War II Europe.

They searched for artwork the Nazis had stolen. In a salt mine in Salzburg, Austria, the 5-year-old Howard slid down a shaft, sliced his leg and came upon, he later was told, a Rembrandt self-portrait.

"I was the canary," Howard said with a laugh, "so my father could snoop."

Now 71, his memories aren't as clear as that scar, but they left a marvelous mark on his mind. And the buzz about "The Monuments Men" has revived some of those stories while the film amazes and educates moviegoers about these little-known, big-time heroes.

Background

According to the website and Robert M. Edsel's book by the same name as the movie, the Monuments Men actually included women. From 1943-51, about 350 males and females from 13 nations at various times served in the Western Allies' effort officially called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators.

The original mission was to protect monuments and other notable structures during bombings. Then, after the Allies crossed the German border, the Monuments Men focused on finding the artwork the Nazis had stolen from public and private collections. Overall, they are credited with rescuing and returning more than 5 million treasured items.

The book and movie document the MFAA's work between June 1944 and May 1945. Howard's father, Lt. Col. Richard Foster Howard, served in the MFAA from 1946 to 1949. He succeeded Maj. Bancel LaFarge as MFAA deputy chief.

According to his Monuments Men Foundation biography, Richard was director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, now known as the Dallas Museum of Art, from 1936-42. Called to active duty from his Reserve status, he was a field artillery captain in the U.S. Army, then promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1944 as he was sent to Europe to serve with the 787th Field Artillery Battalion. He participated in the Ardennes and German campaigns with the Ninth Army. His honors include the Silver Star and the Star of Italian Solidarity, as well as the Officer of the Order of the White Lion from Czechoslovakia.

After his military service, Richard directed the Des Moines (Iowa) Art Center and, in 1951, became the first director of the Birmingham Museum of Art. He died in 1987.

Tagging along

The above citations are for the history books. For the boy Jamie, all that mattered was having fun with his father while they were based in Berlin and traveling around Europe. The grown-ups salvaged hope amid the horror of the war's ruins, and Jamie tagged along for the thrills. He didn't know it then, but he realizes he was an eyewitness to history.

Jamie figures his father brought him on those trips as a decoy. A well-dressed man with a well-mannered boy wouldn't attract suspicion, especially if their driver doubled as their gardener.

"The driver was really a bodyguard," Jamie said, "and I was really a prop."

Jamie at first thought the three of them were off on harmless sightseeing tours, but seeing his father pack a .45 clued him in to the danger.

"I began to be aware that there were a lot of spies around," Jamie said, "I mean a lot of them."

Even the servants in their Berlin home couldn't be trusted.

"They were dealing artwork on the black market," he said.

So, he later learned, his father had to play that game, too.

"He was doing some things that didn't match the appearances," Jamie said. "The problems he couldn't solve through the military authority and civilian authority he would try to solve in the underworld."

That meant rounding up of a bunch of German thugs and convincing them to switch sides, from the bad guys to the good guys. And it meant befriending one of the chief architects and main faces of that evil.

'Creeping me out'

Herman Goering was a confidant of Adolph Hitler and the highest-ranking Nazi official convicted by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Goering committed suicide on the eve of his scheduled execution in 1946, but, before then, Richard gleaned key information from him during visits to Spandau Prison.

"He was a terrific collector of art, Goering was," Jamie said, "and he was telling my father about every piece he knew that was still unaccounted for."

Among those pieces was an evening dress sword made by renowned Nazi weapons designer Carl Eickhorn. Goering told Richard he could retrieve the sword if he visited an associate in the countryside. Richard indeed obtained the sword, and it hung in their Birmingham home for years. It was among the souvenirs Jamie inherited after Richard died, but Jamie didn't feel right about keeping a Nazi relic. So he sold it for nearly $10,000 to help pay for his daughter's graduate studies.

"That sword was creeping me out," he said. "I wanted to sell it and use the money for something appropriate, not luxury. Goering was such a criminal. I wanted to do a make-good."

Many of the specifics of Jamie's memories from following his Monuments Man were filled in later. After all, he was 4-7 years old while his father served in that capacity. So when he speaks of meeting Gens. Dwight Eisenhower, Lucius Clay and Mark Clark, the significance dawned on him only when he was older.

"Gen. Clark was saying something about the badness of people in bad places," Jamie recalled. "He told my father that if you don't do something bad soon, you won't have any friends at all. Years later, I asked my father what he meant, and he said that Gen. Clark was asking him to open up a little bit without any fear of repercussions. All those years had been entre nous because there was a lot of illegality going on both sides.

"Look, the Russians stole 600,000 works of art from the Berlin museums alone, so my father began stealing the art back."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLe.

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