The Monuments Men

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Walter Ings Farmer ( 1911 – 1997 )

Walter Ings Farmer was born in Alliance, Ohio on July 7, 1911. He studied at Columbia University in New York before completing his B.A. in architecture at Miami University in Ohio in 1935. After graduation, he worked as both a lecturer at the Cincinnati Art Museum and an interior designer with A.B. Closson, Jr. Company in Cincinnati.

During World War II, Farmer was called up for service on four separate occasions. Each time, he was rejected due to his poor eyesight. In March 1942 he was finally accepted into service with the Medical Corps, where his eyesight would not be a problem, and later the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In June 1945 he learned that his unit, the 373rd Engineers, was to return to the United States. Rather than return home, however, he applied for a position with the MFAA.

From June 1945 to March 1946, Farmer served as Director of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. There, he oversaw the sorting, cataloguing, restoration, and eventual restitution of thousands of objects which had been found within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forces, Austria (USFA). Created to be the Central Collecting Point for works of art belonging to German museums and private collectors, the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point included the vast collections of sixteen Berlin State Museums, along with seventeen other prominent German collections. One of the most notable works of art under Farmer’s guardianship was the Bust of Nefertiti, which had been found in the salt mine at Merkers.

While Farmer was directly involved in some of the MFAA’s most notable restitutions, he was also central to its most controversial event. In November 1945 Farmer received a hand-delivered a telegram from U.S. Seventh Army headquarters which ordered that “immediate preparations be made for prompt shipment to the U.S. of a selection of at least 200 German works of art of greatest importance.” Both the Roberts Commission and some of the highest-ranked Monuments Men protested. On November 7, 1945, the National Gallery of Art sent its representative, Colonel Henry McBride, to Wiesbaden to select a collection of 202 paintings for shipment which included masterpieces by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli, Raphael, Van Eyck, Holbein, Rubens, Vermeer, among others. Furious and dejected, Farmer called a meeting in his office for the following day with every MFAA Officer available in Europe. A total of thirty-two gave their names in support of the so-called Wiesbaden Manifesto: twenty-four gave their official signatures, three added their names as an expression of agreement but did not feel at liberty to sign, and five more names were listed as having sent separate letters to MFAA headquarters. It was an internal revolt and “the only act of protest by officers against their orders in the Second World War.”

The document was sent to Monuments Man Maj. Bancel LaFarge at MFAA headquarters, who, in the interest of protecting his friends and colleagues, hid it in his desk and never sent it on. Nevertheless, after returning to his teaching post at Harvard, Monuments Man Lt. Charles Kuhn published the Wiesbaden Manifesto in College Art Journal.Lt. Kuhn’s article, combined with multiple reports on the transfer in the American press, sparked a heated ethical debate that did not fade until the 202 paintings were returned to Wiesbaden four years later, after a blockbuster exhibition in Washington and a national tour across thirteen American cities.

Upon his return to the United States in 1946, Farmer resumed his promising career as an interior designer. He helped found the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston and served as President of the museum’s board until 1949. That year, he opened his own firm in Cincinnati, Greenwich House Interiors, which he owned and operated until his death. In addition to his continued lectures at the Cincinnati Art Museum, he spoke at the Columbus Art Museum and the University of Cincinnati. He returned to his alma mater, Miami University, where he earned a Doctorate of Humane Letters in 1973 and acted as a founding donor of the university’s art museum in 1978.

In February 1996, in recognition for his efforts to prevent the shipment of 202 paintings to the National Gallery and the resulting Wiesbaden Manifesto, Farmer was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Federal Order of Merit, Germany’s highest civilian honor.

Walter Farmer died in Cincinnati, Ohio on August 9, 1997. His memoir, The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II, was published posthumously in 2000. His papers are conserved in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.