James Sachs Plaut (1912-1996)
Museum director and curator, James Sachs Plaut was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on February 1, 1912. He attended school in Auteuil, France before completing two degrees in art at Harvard University. He remained at Harvard as an assistant professor until 1935, when he became Assistant Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. While working at the museum, he became involved in the burgeoning modern art movement. In 1936 he co-founded the Boston Museum of Modern Art (today, The Institute of Contemporary Art), a sister institution of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He became the museum’s first official director in 1939.
During World War II, Plaut served as the Senior U.S. Naval Interrogation Officer in Northwest African waters. His duties included interrogating captured German U-boat crews. In November 1944 he was selected to lead the newly-formed Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Responsible for uncovering information regarding Nazi looting through extensive research and countless interrogations, the ALIU functioned as the intelligence component of the MFAA. Also assigned to the unit were Monuments Men Lt. Theodore Rousseau, Jr. and Lt. Cdr. S. Lane Faison, Jr. After months of interrogating hundreds of Nazi officials and collaborators on the whereabouts of looted works of art, each of the three officers submitted in-depth reports regarding the three most important Nazi looting programs: the activities of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi art looting organization) in France (Plaut), the collection of Adolf Hitler intended for his massive Führermuseum in Linz, Austria (Faison), and the collection of Hermann Goering (Rousseau). This wealth of intelligence data was supplied to the MFAA and greatly expedited the restitution process for millions of looted works of art and cultural objects.
During the course of his investigation of the ERR, Plaut interrogated Bruno Lohse, the ERR’s executive officer and art advisor to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. In recognition of his work, Plaut was decorated with the Legion of Merit and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (France), Knight of the Order of St. Olav, First Class (Norway), and Commander of the Royal Order of Leopold (Belgium). He later published an account of his activities with the ALIU, “Hitler’s Capital: Loot for the Master Race” (The Atlantic Monthly, Sept.-Oct. 1946).
Following his return to the United States in April 1946, Plaut resumed his duties as Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. In 1948 he changed the museum’s name to The Institute of Contemporary Art, a symbolic shift away from partisan “modern” terminology toward a new identity within the contemporary movement. During his tenure as Director, Plaut helped shape the early careers of such well-known artists as Oskar Kokoschka, Edvard Munch, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein. He organized numerous ground-breaking exhibitions, including one of the earliest American retrospectives devoted to Wassily Kandinsky, and a traveling exhibition featuring Willem de Kooning. He retired in 1956 in order to become Deputy U.S. Commissioner of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, Belgium.
In 1976 Plaut and his wife, Mary Friedlander Plaut, established Aid to Artisans, a non-profit organization devoted to helping craftsmen in developing countries market their products. Today, Aid to Artisans provides resources for over 100,000 artisans in more than 110 countries. In 1995, along with several other former Monuments Officers, Plaut participated in the symposium “The Spoils of War” held at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City. His lecture, “Investigation of the Major Nazi Art-Confiscation Agencies,” discussed the dedicated work of the Monuments Men and the ALIU.
James Plaut died in Boston on January 13, 1996.
Photo courtesy of The John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization.