Thomas Carr Howe joined the ranks of the Monuments Men in 1945. Howe was a Harvard-educated curator working as director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. The museum building that he worked in was itself a treasure; a three-quarter-scale version of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris, which afforded stunning views over the Golden Gate Bridge.
As director, Howe helped assemble the Legion’s collection, and as art commissioner for the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition, he installed special exhibitions showcasing Mexican muralists. All the while, he was acutely aware of the continuing efforts to retrieve artworks pillaged and hidden away by the Nazis across Europe. He wanted to join the effort.
In the final years of World War II, Thomas Carr Howe joined the ranks, along with 340 other men and women, represented from 13 countries to reclaim, safeguard and return Europe’s stolen treasures as part of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit (MFAA). Howe and the others were also responsible for safeguarding European monuments, buildings and cultural sites from Allied bombings. By the end of their mission, the Monuments Men focus transformed into locating art objects pillaged by the Nazis. This unlikely yet elite group of GIs included architects, scholars, librarians, archivists and art curators like Howe, volunteered for service with the intention of saving Europe’s cultural heritage from destruction.
Lieutenant commander Howe headed the retrieval of the Vienna Rothschild collection from a monastery in Czechoslovakia. In Nuremberg, he wrapped the exquisite Veit Stoss altar found in an underground hideaway. Howe was at hand at the Altaussee salt mines in Austria when Michaelaneglo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Artists Studio and other masterworks were uncovered.
One of the more emotive discoveries that Howe participated in was the unearthing of a 16th century painting, Portrait of a Young Woman by Venetian painter Paris Bordone. Under his directorship, the painting had been on loan to the Legion of Honor Museum, and still had the San Francisco museum label written in Howe’s own handwriting.
Melissa Buron, associate curator of European Art for the Fine Arts Museum, began researching Howe in 2008 after she discovered a plaque in his honor. Buron noted that Thomas Carr Howe had the expertise and a “singular skill set,” making him ideal for the missions.
In 1950, when Howe returned to Germany, he oversaw the return of nearly 3 million objects of art. He commented in a 1976 oral history, “the magnitude of the confiscation,” achieved by the Nazis was extraordinary, although equally remarkable was that the permanent loss of artwork was less than two percent.
Howe did acknowledge much of the recovery process was rewarding. However, sometimes there was the mindset of why did they not, the “conquering heroes” get to keep it for themselves? The curator commented that had they had that attitude, it would have “caused endless ill will.” The artifact had to return to its country of origin. Howe and his fellow GIs did have a few instances when they “reveled in some of the finery,” but overall they handled the artifacts with “proper respect.”
In 1946, praising Howe’s work and acumen as one of the Monuments Men, the French government made him the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor. In addition, he received Officier of the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau in honor of his wartime work from the Dutch government.
Thomas Howe later wrote a book about his extraordinary experiences and wartime work entitled, Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art in 1946.
The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. presents a Monuments Men exhibition from February 7th to April 20th, 2014. The archives maintain the oral-history interviews and personal papers of a number of Monuments Men including Thomas Carr Howe. The exhibition, Monuments Men: On the Frontline to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946 presents official military records, photographs and letters that account the remarkable mission of Thomas Carr Howe and the rest of the Monuments Men.
by Dawn Levesque