The Monuments Men

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John Davis Skilton ( 1909-1992 )

John Davis Skilton was born in Cheshire, Connecticut on February 28, 1909. He attended Yale University, where he earned a B.A. in 1933 and an M.A. in 1936. During the course of his studies, he made seven trips to Europe for study and research, including a term of study at the University of Paris and a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1935. After his graduation from Yale, he worked as a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. alongside future Monuments Men Craig Hugh Smyth, Charles Parkhurst, and Lamont Moore. In 1942 he assisted the National Gallery with the evacuation of its most important works of art to safety at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. From January to June of 1943, Skilton and Smyth supervised the maintenance and care of the artworks at their temporary home.

Skilton enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 1943 and served with the medical detachment of the 69th Armored Infantry Battalion, 16th Armored Division. In early 1944 he was assigned to duty as an MFAA Officer in France. He accompanied U.S. troops into the town of Plougastel-Daoulas, France in August 1944, where he inspected the remains of a small church destroyed during air raids. Just outside the church, he came upon the damaged monument known as The Calvary at Plougastel-Daoulas, a massive, four-sided sculpture representing scenes from the life and death of Christ. In awe of its beauty, he collected the numerous statues and stored them in the attic of the nearby presbytery with the pledge to one day return to aid in their restoration. He kept his promise. Upon his return home to the United States, he founded the Plougastel Calvaire Restoration Fund. The statues were restored by the sculptor John Millet in 1948-49. In appreciation, the town named Skiltonan honorary citizen of Plougastel in 1959, and named a town square in his honor.

Skilton was also responsible for the survival of the treasured Tiepolo ceilings of the Kaisersaal at the Würzburg Residenz in Würzburg, Germany. After extensive Allied bombing on March 16, 1945, the palace’s wooden roof collapsed, leaving Tiepolo’s Olympus and the Four Continents exposed to the elements. For several weeks, Skilton collected lumber to repair the roof. He eventually found a stash of logs near Ochsenfurt, which he floated down the Main River to Heidingsfeld. After personally financing a sawmill to cut the logs, Skilton supervised a team of German architects, engineers, and laborers who worked diligently to repair the roof before rains could destroy the magnificent ceiling. The project, begun under Skilton’s supervision in 1945, was not completed until 1987. In honor of his exemplary work in Würzburg, Skilton was awarded the Verdienst Kreuz, First Class by the government of West Germany.

After his return home to the United States, Skilton resumed his career as a curator and art historian. He held positions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Parke-Bernet Gallery in New York. He was the recipient of the Medaille de la Reconaissance Francaise and the French Legion of Honor. His personal account of his experiences as a Monuments Man, Defense de l’Art European, was published in French in 1947. He served for thirty years as President of the Marcella Sembrich Memorial Association, and was active with the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, a world renowned performing arts festival. He was a life member of the Academy of American Poets, fellow of the Pierpont Morgan Library, and member of the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie.

John Skilton died in Bridgeport, Connecticut on January 22, 1992.