Sheldon Waugh Keck (1910-1993)
A pioneer in art conservation, Sheldon Waugh Keck was born in Utica, New York on May 30, 1910. After completing two degrees from Harvard University, he was selected for an apprenticeship in restoration at the Fogg Museum of Art. There, he studied under renowned art conservator and future Monuments Man, George L. Stout. After a year studying abroad in Italy and England, he was appointed as the first conservator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In addition to skillfully treating and restoring the museum’s paintings and sculptures, he began to expand the conservation department.
Keck enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1943. Due to his extensive experience with art restoration and his friendship with Paul J. Sachs, Director of the Fogg Museum and member of the Roberts Commission, Keck was quickly selected for service with the MFAA. However, to the great frustration of everyone involved, military oversights and red tape delayed Keck’s official orders for many months. Not until February 1945 did he receive orders to report to the G-5 (Civil Affairs) Division of U.S. Ninth Army.
Keck began as driver and assistant to Monuments Man Capt. Walter Huchthausen. Together, the pair conducted inspections of churches, museums, and monuments in the area surrounding Aachen, Germany, the first major German city captured by Western Allied forces. One of the sites they inspected was Aachen Cathedral, the oldest church in Northern Europe and the resting place of Charlemagne. On April 2, Huchthausen and Keck went in search of an altarpiece stolen from a nearby town. Disoriented and behind enemy lines, their jeep came under fire. Bullets killed Huchthausen immediately, but his slumping body shielded Keck, saving his life. Days would pass before Keck, injured when their vehicle overturned, would learn of his friend’s death
As a Monuments Officer for the Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone (OMGUS), Keck conducted solo inspections of small German towns including Sachsen and Thüringen. In 1945 he was assigned to the Marburg Central Collecting Point working alongside Monuments Men Lt. Samuel Ratensky and Pfc. Francis Bilodeau. At the Collecting Point, Keck sorted through two truckloads of German Military Government records, which provided valuable information regarding Nazi art looting activities in Belgium and Northern France. He was also involved in the restitution of works of art stolen from the famed Rothschild and Goudstikker collections.
After his return to the United States, Keck resumed his career at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Together with his wife and partner, Caroline Keck, he established an internationally-recognized conservation laboratory. The Kecks also served as consulting conservators on projects at some of America’s greatest cultural institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the New York State Historical Association, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Keck also penned numerous articles about the countless masterpieces he had restored. Most prominent was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, repaired by Keck after it suffered a small tear while on display at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948.
In 1961, Keck left the Brooklyn Museum to become Director of the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, the first ever graduate program in art conservation. Keck had originally suggested the idea to Craig Hugh Smyth, a fellow Monuments Man and Director of the Institute, in the 1950s. In addition to serving as the first President of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), Keck was a Fulbright Fellow (1959), a Guggenheim Fellow (1960), and served on a panel of conservators who developed the first code of ethics for the field of conservation. In 1969, the Kecks established the Latin American Center for Conservation of Cultural Property in Mexico City under the auspices of UNESCO. For their indelible contributions to art conservation, they were jointly awarded the New York State Award in 1975 and the Katherine Coffey Award in 1984.
On June 12, 1993, after nearly six decades of groundbreaking work in art conservation and restoration, Sheldon Keck died in Cooperstown, New York. Today, the AIC annually presents the Sheldon and Caroline Keck Award to one AIC Fellow who, like Sheldon Keck, displays “a sustained record of excellence in the education and training of conservation professionals.”
Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.