The Monuments Men

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William Buchwalter Van Nortwick ( 1911-1988 )

William Buchwalter van Nortwick descended from five generations of successful van Nortwicks in Batavia, Illinois. Born in 1911, his forbears included the Superintendent of Repairs for the Champlain Canal in New York and the chief engineer for what later became the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. His interest in art began at a young age while viewing his family’s personal collection of steel engravings depicting Parisian architecture. Learning that many of these monuments were damaged during World War I inspired him to study ancient monuments and architecture at Princeton University, graduating cum laude in 1934.

Van Nortwick was commissioned in the U.S. Army Armored Force in July 1942. Following extensive training, he was assigned to the 784th Tank Battalion at Camp Hood, Texas. His unit arrived in Wales, United Kingdom, in October 1944 and advanced from Prontypridd in the Taff Valley through Paris and into Germany. In Rouen, he was invited to play the organ accompaniment during the military Christmas mass at the majestic Church of St. Ouen (the inspiration for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City). The service was the first held in the sanctuary since the German occupation.

In April 1945 van Nortwick came across an advertisement posted by the MFAA seeking personnel with knowledge of art history. His application was promptly accepted. Van Nortwick received transfer orders that took him to the British Zone of Occupation at Kreis Beckum in Westphalia. There, he placed “off limits” notices at protected monuments and repositories, including Hauses Craccenstein, Vorhelm, and Assen, grand manor houses used to store works of art evacuated from the museums in Münster, Germany. In July 1945 van Nortwick was assigned to Karlsruhe, Germany in the U.S. Zone of Occupation, where he worked alongside Monuments Men Lt. Robert A. Koch and Capt. James J. Rorimer. His duties included the evacuation of works of art and other cultural objects discovered in the Heilbronn and Kochendorf salt mines to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point for sorting, processing, and eventual restitution to the countries from which they had been stolen. He also interrogated multiple German museum officials, many of whom were members of the Nazi Party, regarding the locations of further repositories.

Van Nortwick continued his inspections of monuments, museums, and repositories in North Baden until February 1946, when he returned to the United States. He published two articles recalling his experience as a Monuments Man in English Country Life magazine, “Looking After the Ruins” and “Treasures of the Third Reich.” Following meritorious service during the Korean War, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star, van Nortwick settled in New York City. He began plans for a museum to house his large personal collection of art and fine linens in his hometown of Batavia, Illinois. Following his death, however, his will was disputed by his estranged wife, who thwarted his dream by claiming ownership of the objects, which she subsequently sold at auction.

William van Nortwick died in New York City on December 8, 1988.