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Southwest Ohio’s own Monument Man

Thanks to George Clooney, the story of “the greatest treasure hunt in history” is now being told on movie screens everywhere.

“Monuments Men,” which opened at theaters this weekend, is based on the real-life adventures of a talented group of men and women who helped to protect and safeguard the artistic and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

Clooney, who grew up in Kentucky and Ohio, served as both director, co-author and actor in the film, which also stars Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and John Goodman.

But Clooney isn’t the only local connection to this story. The plot will sound familiar to many in our region thanks to our own real-life Monument Man, Walter Farmer.

Farmer, a well-known art collector and interior designer in our area, not only made his mark as a Monuments Man, but was instrumental in establishing Miami University’s Art Museum in Oxford. He donated much of his extensive art collection to the museum.

“You can’t go through a gallery at our museum without seeing something that was donated by Walter Farmer,” says museum director Robert S. Wicks. “He was a good solid and eclectic collector who collected everything under the sun — from ancient Roman glass to Pre-Columbian sculpture to medieval textiles.”

Farmer’s background

Farmer, who died in 1997 in Cincinnati, earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Miami and became an interior designer at Closson’s in Cincinnati. After serving in both the Medical Corps and the Army Corps of Engineers, he asked to join the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program that had been established in 1943.

The group, which eventually numbered 345, consisted of museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects and educators from 13 nations, about 250 of them from the United States. Many went on to become directors and curators at America’s most prestigious art institutions including the Met, the MOMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and many others.

Still others were responsible for helping to create arts organizations such as the New York City Ballet, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Wicks says the first group of Monuments Men, the focus of the new film, helped to ensure that when the military forces went into an area during the war, the cultural and artistic buildings and artifacts were protected from destruction.

“They would point out a church or a sculpture or an altarpiece,” he explains. “Their role was to cut down on the amount of looting going on.”

After the war, another wave of Monuments Men sought out Nazi art repositories where art had been stored and sent that art to collecting points where the process began of documenting and cataloging the art and making sure it was ultimately returned to its rightful owner. That’s where Farmer came in.

“Walter Farmer was one of the immediate post-war Monuments Men,” explains Wicks. “He was part of that second wave.”

Farmer’s special role

Capt. Walter Farmer became best known as the first director of of the Wiesbaden collecting point. Beginning in 1945 he was responsible for helping to restore the former Wiesbaden Museum so that it could be used to receive and process art after the war.

“He was just a lover of beautiful things,” says Farmer’s daughter, Margaret Farmer Planton, who lives in Chillicothe and edited her father book entitled “The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II” which was published both in Berlin and New York posthumously.

“I grew up with my mother and father talking about the Wiesbaden collecting point,” she says. “One of the first things my dad had to do was hire an assistant in June 1945, and he hired my mother.”

Planton remembers the excitement with which her parents talked about those historic days.

“They talked about the incredible intensity of the effort, they worked such long hours,” Planton says. “They were dealing with an unbelievable group of artwork because Wiesbaden received the entire collection that had been in the Berlin Museum. It had been relocated and as they pulled it out of the salt mines, it was sent to Wiesbaden.”

Her father made news after protesting orders from his superiors to ship hundreds of the paintings — including those by Rembrandt and Rubens — to the United States. The Weisbaden manifesto, signed by Farmer and others, insisted that the art that had belonged to Germans and Germany should not be considered a “prize of war.”

After three years of debate, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered that the contested paintings be returned to Germany in 1948. For the courageous stand he took, Farmer received the German Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 1996.

“I’m just so glad that happened while he was still able to travel,” says Planton. “I went with him to Germany.”

According to the Monuments Men Foundation, the nonprofit group which works to honor the Monuments Men, by the time Farmer left the job in 1946, he had overseen thousands of incoming objects which had been stored in the salt mines, the majority from German museums. Altogether, he supervised the inventory and care of more than 28,000 crates of artworks.

When he came back to the States, Farmer returned to Cincinnati where he opened 1949 he opened his own firm, Greenwich House Interiors in 1997. He owned that establishment until his death.

Over the years, he lectured at the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Columbus Art Museum and at the University of Cincinnati.In addition to his significant role at the Miami University Art Museum, Farmer was founder of the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston. He was awarded a Doctorate of Humane Letters from Miami University in 1973.

In 2001, Planton donated her father’s papers to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.,

Learning more

The real force behind the effort to honor the Monuments Men is author Robert M. Edsel, who created the Monuments Men Foundation in 2007 and authored the book on which the current film is based.

Edsel also wrote “Rescuing Da Vinci” and was co-producer of the documentary film “The Rape of Europa,” which also dealt with the Monuments Men. That film premiered locally at the Dayton Art Institute as part of Dayton’s Jewish Film Festival. In 2008 it was broadcast on PBS and received two Emmy nominations.

“The story is definitely not one the general public is familiar with,” says Elizabeth Hudson, chief researcher for the Monuments Men Foundation. “It’s an important story because in World War II the Monuments Men did the right thing by protecting cultural property in a war zone, it was the first mass organized effort to protect cultural property.They stayed in Europe until 1951.”

Unfortunately, Hudson says, their legacy has often been forgotten in other armed conflicts in which the United States has been involved.

“There are some people who still do this sort of thing but it’s not as well organized and that means art can be lost,” she explains. “During World War II, Eisenhower had the foresight to give the Monuments officers authority while the war was going on. They were just behind the front lines and so they were able to make a real impact.”

In contrast, Hudson says, during the invasion of Iraq — although civil affairs officers were sent in to assist within the National Museum in Baghdad — it was after the fact when looting had already taken place.

The work continues

Hudson says her organization receives e-mails every day from family members or others connected to the story.

“It’s a huge story and there’s always more to learn about it,” she says. “By 1951 the Monuments Men had returned five million works of art. They collected the art, sorted through it, determined who was the proper owner and ultimately restituted those works of art to their countries of origin.”

Hudson urges people who have things they think were taken during World War II, to contact the Foundation.

“We assist with returning the art to their proper owner,” she says. “A veteran or displaced person may have picked something up as a souvenir not really knowing what it was. We recently returned eight books from the 17th century to Italy that were from the library there. The veteran was still living and had taken the books as a young G.I. when he came across the repository.

“Later in his life he realized he shouldn’t have picked them up and he wanted to return them.”

Hudson says citizens can help honor the Monuments Men by supporting the bills in both houses of Congress to award the Monuments Men the Congressional Gold Medal. Five men and one woman from the original group are still living.

“We owe them our gratitude,” Hudson concludes. “They deserve to be honored and recognized for what they did.”

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