Thomas Carr Howe, Jr. (1904-1994)
Museum director Thomas Carr Howe, Jr. was born in Kokomo, Indiana in 1904. He attended Harvard University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in art history in 1926 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1929. During his graduate work, he took “Museum Work and Museum Problems,” the well-known course taught by Paul J. Sachs, future member of the Roberts Commission. He also worked as an instructor in the art department from 1927 to 1928. He travelled widely throughout Europe, becoming fluent in French and German.
In 1931 Howe became Assistant Director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor (today referred to as The Legion of Honor) in San Francisco, California. He was named Director in 1939. During his long and successful tenure as Director, he acquired for the museum some of its most outstanding works, including Rembrandt’s The Rabbi, Lucas Cranach’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes, and paintings by Fragonard, Manet, Corot, Renoir, and Degas. In 1933 he was an administrator for President Roosevelt’s New Deal-era Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He also served as special art commissioner for the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition.
After two years of service as a lieutenant in the United States Naval Reserve (USNR), Howe was recommended for work as a Monuments Officer by his former professor at Harvard, Paul Sachs. Along with fellow USNR Monuments Officer Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth, Howe arrived in Europe in May 1945. Howe and Smyth reported to Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, head of the MFAA Section at SHAEF Headquarters at Versailles, and were assigned to SHAEF’s G-5 Division (Civil Affairs). After two weeks of training, they were sent to Wiesbaden, Germany. There, each of the two men was tasked with establishing a central collecting point in which to store looted works of art and other cultural objects looted by the Nazis during the war. While Smyth began plans for what would become the Munich Central Collecting Point, Howe was sent to Frankfurt, Germany to find suitable buildings for a second collecting point. While Howe originally began preparations for the use of some of the buildings at Frankfurt University, operations were later moved to the more suitable Landesmuseum in Wiesbaden, the eventual home of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point.
In mid-June 1945 Howe accompanied Lt. Cdr. Charles L. Kuhn, Deputy Chief of the MFAA, to the Reichsbank in Frankfurt to inspect the collection of treasures recently evacuated from a salt mine in Merkers, Germany. Kuhn placed Howe in charge of creating an inventory of the collection alongside Property Control Officer Capt, William Dunn. Howe and Dunn were assisted by Monuments Officers Capt. Edwin C. Rae and Capt. Edith A. Standen. As operations progressed in Frankfurt, Howe was dispatched to multiple locations in Germany and Austria to recover looted works of art from their various hiding places. He recovered eighty-one cases of artworks from a small village near Salzburg, Austria and discovered treasures from the collections of the Rothschilds of Vienna and the Mannheimers of Amsterdam at a monastery in Hohenfurth, Czechoslovakia.
Howe assisted Monuments Officers Lt. Cdr. George Stout, Lt. Stephen Kovalyak, Lt. Lamont Moore, and Lt. Frederick Shrady with the evacuation of the mine at Altaussee, Austria, where the Monuments Men carefully packed Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Artist’s Studio, and the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck. He also discovered Paris Bordone’s Portrait of a Young Woman, which had once been on loan to the Legion of Honor Museum during his time as Director. The painting still bore a label from the museum written in Howe’s own handwriting. When Stout left the mine to escort the treasures to the Munich Central Collecting Point, he placed Howe in charge. Over the course of five weeks of laborious evacuations at Altaussee, Howe helped orchestrate the removal of ninety truckloads of looted paintings, sculpture, and furniture.
Because of their success at Altaussee, Howe, Moore, and Kovalyak were appointed as a three-man Special Evacuation Team under the authority of the U.S. Forces European Theater (USFET). The team’s first assignment took them to Berchtesgaden, Germany, where they spent three weeks evacuating thirty-one truckloads of looted items from the collection of Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering to the Munich Central Collecting Point. Their next assignment was at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps, where they were tasked with removing the records of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi art looting organization which looted works of art for Hitler’s planned Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria). Consisting of over 20,000 catalogue cards of looted works of art, 8,000 negatives, and piles of documents, the records were crucial to the restitution of thousands of looted items evacuated from Neuschwanstein and stored at the Munich Central Collecting Point.
Between late August and October 1945, Howe participated in the restitution of some of Europe’s greatest masterpieces. After the end of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower personally ordered the immediate return of at least one notable work of art to each of the countries invaded by the Germans. These restitutions were intended as a gesture of good faith. Howe and the Special Evacuation Team supervised the transfer of the Ghent Altarpiece from the Munich Central Collecting Point to Belgium on August 21st. Similar restitutions continued into October 1945, when twenty-seven Dutch masterpieces were returned to the Netherlands, the Hohenfurth altarpiece was returned to Czechoslovakia, and preparations began to return the Veit Stoss altarpiece to Poland (the altarpiece’s actual return was delayed until April 1946).
In December 1945 Howe briefly replaced Monuments Officer Maj. Bancel LaFarge as Chief of the Restitution Branch of the MFAA. He returned to the United States in February 1946 and resumed his position as Director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. He published a personal account of his work with the MFAA in Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art (1946). Yet, his work with the MFAA was not yet complete: he was sent back to Germany as Cultural Affairs Advisor with the Office of the High Commissioner of Germany in September 1951. Along with Monuments Man Lt. Cdr. S. Lane Faison, Howe wrapped up restitutions and closed the remaining collecting points. For his incredible devotion to the return of Europe’s displaced cultural objects, Howe was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and an Officer of the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau.
After returning from service in Germany for the second time, Howe once again resumed work at The Legion of Honor until his retirement as Director Emeritus in 1968. The museum’s 1966 exhibition “The Age of Rembrandt,” which included fifty seventeenth-century paintings on special loan from the Dutch government, was the last of its kind. This generous loan was seen as a symbolic gesture of appreciation by the Dutch government for Howe’s efforts to return looted Dutch property during his service with the MFAA.
Howe remained devoted to the furthering of art education. He was President of the Association of American Art Museum Directors, trustee of the American Federation of Arts, a member of the Fine Arts Committee for the White House and the Smithsonian Art Commission, and Chairman of the National Collection of Fine Arts.
Thomas C. Howe, Jr. passed away on July 12, 1994 in San Francisco, California.
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.