Francis Waterhouse Bilodeau (1915-2004)
Francis Waterhouse Bilodeau was born in Augusta, Maine on January 25, 1915. He first became interested in art as an undergraduate student at Bowdoin College in Maine, where he worked part-time painting the walls and ceilings at the university’s art museum. After earning his Bachelor’s degree in History in 1938, he joined the staff of the Newark Museum in Newark, New Jersey. He worked first in the Lending Department and later in the Registrars’ Department, where he supervised the care and preservation of American paintings and sculptures. In 1940 he took a year off to expand his knowledge of art history at Yale University.
Bilodeau’s graduate studies were placed on hold with his enlistment in the U.S. Army in October 1941. He served with the Combat Engineer Battalion of the 8th Infantry Division, which landed on Omaha Beach in July 1944, and, gradually progressed through Northern France into the Rhineland. In the last week of April 1945, just before the end of the war in Europe, Bilodeau was assigned to the MFAA in Germany. He worked at the Marburg Central Collecting Point alongside Monuments Men Capt. Walker K. Hancock and Lt. Sheldon Keck until February 1946, when he was discharged from active service. At that time, thousands of works of art and other cultural objects had yet to be restituted to their home countries. Determined to finish the job, Bilodeau remained in Marburg as a civilian in order to serve as the collecting point’s last Director.
When Marburg officially closed in August 1946, its records were sent to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. Bilodeau also transferred to Wiesbaden, first as Acting Director while Monuments Woman Capt. Edith A. Standen was on leave, and finally as Director upon her departure. Bilodeau’s activities as Director included the planning of numerous exhibitions of looted art, the first of their kind in postwar Germany. In Marburg, he formed a valuable relationship with the Kunsthistorisches Institut of Marburg University, which placed the full resources of its library and staff at Bilodeau’s disposal. Bilodeau later converted the Marburg Central Collecting point into the new home of the Marburg University Library and the State Archives.
In August 1946 Bilodeau supervised the re-interment of the bodies of President and Frau von Hindenburg, Frederick the Great of Prussia, and Frederick’s father, Frederick Wilhelm I. The four elaborately decorated caskets, along with other royal treasures, had been secreted away by Adolf Hitler, who intended to resurrect their coffins as symbols of a Fourth Reich. American forces discovered them, deep in the Bernterode salt mine in late April 1945. Monuments Man Walker K. Hancock then supervised their careful removal to the surface with the assistance of Monuments Men Lt. Cdr. George L. Stout and Lt. Stephen Kovalyak. Assigned the codename “Operation Bodysnatch,” the mission remained a closely guarded secret. After the caskets were refused resting places in both the British and French Zones of Occupation, Bilodeau settled on a spot nearby at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Marburg. Today, the remains of Frederick the Great rest in the forecourt of Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Germany. His father’s remains are nearby in the Kaiser-Friedrich Mausoleum at the Church of Peace in Sanssouci Park.
Bilodeau departed Wiesbaden in April 1947 and returned to the Newark Museum. In the years before his retirement in 1972, he held positions at museums and galleries across the United States, including Sheldon Swope Art Gallery in Terre Haute, Indiana, the R.W. Norton Gallery in Shreveport, Louisiana, Gibbes Art Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, and Chapellier Galleries in New York. In 1954 he became Supervisor of Education for the New York Historical Society.
In 1998, for his devoted service to the conservation of cultural heritage at the postwar collecting points, Bilodeau was awarded a Letter of Commendation from the Federal Republic of Germany.
Francis Bilodeau died in New York on June 16, 2004.