Robert Alan Koch (1919-2011)
Museum curator, professor, and scholar of Northern Renaissance art, Robert Alan Koch was born in 1919 in Durham, North Carolina. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, he earned a Bachelor of Arts in art history in 1940, followed by a Master of Fine Arts in 1942.
Koch was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and assigned to the MFAA in late March 1945. He was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany as MFAA Specialist Officer with the Office of Military Government for Württemberg-Baden. In this position, he managed the evacuation of looted objects from the twin Heilbronn-Kochendorf salt mines, made trips to the various collecting points, managed intelligence acquired in the field, maintained correspondence with MFAA headquarters, and liaised with foreign restitution officers. Koch also spent time working in the field recovering looted works of art and other cultural objects. In December 1945 he personally delivered two paintings looted from Heidelberg University to Monuments Officer Capt. Walter I. Farmer at the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. He attended a November 1945 ceremony in Strasbourg, France celebrating the return of the stained glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral, which had been discovered within Koch’s jurisdiction at Heilbronn salt mine.
Koch also served as a representative of the MFAA at a November 1945 conference with German officials regarding plans for the reopening of the Landesbibliothek in Stuttgart. Though the library had been severely damaged in a December 1944 air raid, the most valuable books and manuscripts had been removed to safety. In January 1946 it was announced that the library would reopen to researchers on a limited basis, an accomplishment due in large part to the efforts of Koch. The recent removal of 202 German-owned paintings from the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in November 1945 had sown distrust in many German officials regarding the motives of the American MFAA. Koch intended the library’s reopening to serve as both positive publicity for the MFAA and an act of good faith in future relations between the United States and Germany.
Upon his return to the United States in 1946, Koch began a long and successful career at Princeton University. He resumed his study of Northern Renaissance art as Woodrow Wilson fellow and Procter fellow, receiving his second Master of Fine Arts in 1948 and a Ph.D. in medieval sculpture in 1954. In September 1948 he began teaching at Princeton as an assistant instructor in the Department of Art and Archaeology. He would rise up through the ranks at Princeton to Instructor in 1950, Assistant Professor in 1955, Associate Professor in 1958, and full Professor in 1966. He retired from the university as Professor Emeritus in 1990.
In addition to his lectures, Koch maintained dual roles as both instructor and curator at the Princeton University Art Museum. He began his work with the museum as Assistant Director in 1950 and continued in this role until his retirement in 1990. He also served as Curator of American Art from 1959 to 1960 and Curator of Prints and Drawings from 1961 to 1990. A respected scholar, Koch received multiple grants and fellowships. In 1956 he was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to study art in Belgium for a year, followed by a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies in 1961. He was also a popular visiting professor at institutions including Princeton Theological Seminary and the New York University Institute of Fine Arts.
In addition, Koch was Chairman of the Board of the College Art Association from 1961 to 1963 and served on the board of the Medieval Academy of America from 1964 to 1966. He published several books including Joachim Patinir (1968) and Hans Baldung Grien; Eve, the Serpent and Death (1974). In 1994, in honor of the seventy-fifth birthday of their “mentor, colleague, and friend,” the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton published A Tribute to Robert A. Koch: Studies in the Northern Renaissance.
Robert Koch passed away in Raleigh, North Carolina on November 10, 2011.
Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina.