“I will always be proudest of the moment when I found the courage to stand up and shout we must stop this! without thinking of the personal consequences. It is my eternal wish that all the missing art treasures will be recovered and that they will be available for the whole world to see.”
— pg. 117, “The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II”
Wednesday, Nov. 7, 1945
In the middle of a bombed-out city, the Wiesbaden State Museum in Germany was one of the few buildings still intact six months after the Nazis surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe.
Walter I. Farmer sat in his office in the museum, staring at a telegram that had been delivered hours earlier ordering him to deliver 202 “German works of art of greatest importance” to the U.S. Army.
Walter, a 1935 graduate of Miami University, was the director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point for the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) division. That meant he was one of a group of specialists who worked to find, safeguard, return and restore works of art stolen by the Nazis all over Europe throughout the war.
Overcome by frustration and rage, he began weeping. The U.S. government was ordering him to ship some of the world’s greatest German-owned works of art back to America for “safekeeping.”
Walter didn’t buy it.
Two-hundred and two precious works of art were not going to be “safer” transported across the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of winter.
The orders ran counter to Walter’s commitment to handling these priceless cultural properties with integrity and respect.
Walter thought he understood the real reason behind the “safekeeping” excuse: The government wanted those paintings, some of the most famous images in the Western world — from Rembrandt’s “Man with Golden Helmet” to Botticelli’s “Venus” and Watteau’s “Réunion en Plein Air” — to be exhibited in American museums.
These 202 works of art originally belonged in German museums across the country: nearby Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden and Munich, to name a few.
After gathering himself, Walter wired 35 officers in the MFA&A. Thirty-two men answered his appeal, and they traveled that day from various cities across Europe to discuss how the MFA&A would protest the shipment.
Walter was prepared to disobey his orders and face the prospect of being court-martialed.
The following day, Thursday, Nov. 7, 1945, he and the other officers gathered in his office to discuss how best to lodge their protest.
America would not join in the theft of art, not if the MFA&A had anything to say about it.
The result of the meeting in Walter’s office was a document now known as the Wiesbaden Manifesto, the only protest made by U.S. officers during World War II.
“Though our obligation is to the nation to which we owe allegiance, there are yet further obligations to common justice, decency and the establishment of the power of right, not of expediency or might, among civilized nations.”
— Wiesbaden Manifesto, U.S. Forces, European Theater Germany
Walter was born on July 7, 1911, in Alliance, Ohio. He spent his childhood collecting mementos, stacking family heirlooms in an extra room he referred to as a “museum,” researching his Quaker heritage and discovering the arts.
“He must’ve been a rather unusual child,” his daughter Margaret Farmer Platon muses.
Margaret grew up hearing the tales of the MFA&A, or the Monuments Men, as they are informally known, and became an art connoisseur and archivist herself. She lives in Chillicothe, Ohio, and served on city council and as the town’s mayor before retiring.
Walter’s legacy as an archivist and supporter of the arts deeply informed Margaret’s own life.
“I won’t throw out little treasures of family history,” Margaret declares. “He was forceful and boisterous, but taught me to love art, to love taking care of things.”
Even 20-plus years after Walter’s death, Margaret’s basement is covered with memorabilia from her late father’s life — photographs, bookcases, boxes and documents chronicling Walter’s contributions to society.
One of the earliest of those contributions was Walter’s work at Miami during his undergraduate years. As a mathematics and architecture double major, he learned how to clean and repair the frames of the university’s paintings — a skill that helped him land a job as an interior designer after college.
That job took him to Cincinnati, where he worked for a man who claimed to be the oldest art dealer west of the Alleghenies: Alfred Burton Closson.
But Walter desperately wanted to be an architect, and hated working for Closson.
He met his first wife, pianist Josselyn Liszniewska, shortly before World War II began and married her a month before he left for Germany in March 1942.
They were together for only 100 days. Walter had poor eyesight, and his Army prospects were slim at age 30.
But through a fluke, he didn’t receive a military eye exam, and after proving his ability to be resourceful, he rose to the rank of adjutant, or captain, in the 373rd Regiment of Engineers.
A little over two years after his initial deployment, Walter was offered a post-war reassignment to the MFA&A, where he would be the director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point at the Wiesbaden State Museum.
“He was a go-getter, a problem solver,” Margaret says. “That skill really carried over into monuments work.”
The Wiesbaden Collecting Point was established to keep and restore art (including antiquities, paintings, sculptures, etc.) as well as to safeguard the historical artifacts from the Soviet army and any potential postwar looters.
The position was a major source of pride, but it also ended his marriage. Josselyn said she had waited long enough for Walter’s return from overseas.
Given his background in architecture, Walter was ordered to rebuild the museum in addition to helping organize and catalog the truckloads of European collections that had been hidden in salt mines and various repositories.
Walter arrived in Wiesbaden with a Jeep, little equipment and no command of the German language.
“The first person he hired as a translator became my mom,” Margaret says.
That woman, Renate Hobkirk, served as Walter’s administrative assistant at the Collecting Point. As the sole German citizen sitting in on the protest discussions, she played an important role in managing deliveries as art collections traveled through Wiesbaden on their way back to various European countries.
The Wiesbaden Collecting Point housed and catalogued over 70,000 individual pieces of art.
But it was the order to turn over 202 works of German-owned art that forced Walter to band his fellow MFA&A officers together to draft the Wiesbaden Manifesto.
The men crowded into Walter’s office in the museum on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 7, 1945, arguing over the language of the document.
They agreed that it was outrageous for the U.S. Army to demand Walter turn over hundreds of pieces of art to America while the Allies were preparing to prosecute Nazis “for the crime of sequestering” — or stealing “the cultural treasures of German-occupied countries.”
Walter dictated as Renate typed: “We, the undersigned, feel it is our duty to point out that, though as members of the Armed Forces we will carry out the orders we receive, we are thus put before any candid eyes as no less culpable than those whose prosecution we affect to sanction.”
The MFA&A was determined to hold the U.S. Army and its government to the same standards that the Allies were imposing on the Germans.
Ultimately, Walter and his colleagues were forced to carry out their orders from headquarters.
But their protest, via the Wiesbaden Manifesto, was published in the “College Art Journal” months later, in January 1946.
Several publications — The New York Times, the Magazine of Art and TIME — covered the protest, and the publicity galvanized American museum officials and academics to petition President Harry Truman to return the art to Germany.
Despite the mounting public outcry, the 202 works of art remained in storage in Washington, D.C.
In February 1948, the House Armed Services Committee arranged for an American show featuring the 202. Again, former MFA&A members protested loudly. Finally, after touring 12 American cities, all of the art was returned to Wiesbaden for exhibition in 1949.
Walter was one of many individuals who chose to defend the integrity of those 202 works of art. Without him, there would be no Wiesbaden Manifesto.
For Walter, though, the Wiesbaden Manifesto was just a reflection of his lifelong commitment to art, culture and history.
Feeling disillusioned after complying with the U.S. Army’s orders to turn over the 202 works of art, Walter wanted to regain the Germans’ trust.
He had made a commitment to the citizens of Wiesbaden that he would respect their culture and help restore their country, which had been utterly decimated by the Nazis.
So Walter and Renate decided to boost morale by arranging for an “Exhibition of German-Owned Old Masters” to showcase some of the many art treasures that remained in Walter’s care at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point.
The exhibition launched on Feb. 10, 1946. Renate published a catalogue in German and English that explained the MFA&A’s purpose. A bust of Queen Nefertiti was the exhibit’s main attraction.
After the exhibition ended, Walter returned to the United States in March 1946. He brought Renate back a year later, and they got married in 1947.
The newlyweds settled in Houston, and talk of the Wiesbaden Manifesto and the 202 works of German-owned art still in the care of the U.S. Army faded into the background as Renate and Walter worked tirelessly to help found the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston.
The couple’s only child, Margaret, was born in 1949, right before the family moved to Cincinnati.
But Walter and Renate’s initial attraction — and subsequent marriage — was not meant to last.
“They had really strong personalities,” Margaret says now. “They were very demanding in how they approached everything.”
By the late 1950s, their marriage was crumbling. They divorced while Margaret was still in high school.
Margaret lived with her mother. She didn’t speak to her father again until 1970, when she got married.
Meanwhile, Walter was making a name for himself as a tradesman supplying decorations to Cincinnati’s elite.
In the late 1950s, shortly before his divorce from Renate, Walter purchased Greenwich House, which would serve as an office for the interior decorating company he had created.
Greenwich House also had an art gallery. In between commissions, Walter would open up the gallery for art exhibitions, showing off his personal collection to his friends and family.
In the 1960s, Walter renovated an 1870s villa in Hyde Park, filling it with a mix of modern art and antiques. He was a collector at heart, and Cincinnati made him feel sophisticated.
A friend once remarked that he was the only man she knew who wore an ascot tie.
He was a big talker and well-read — a gentleman with lovely manners who epitomized fine living, entertaining his friends and traveling.
“These are all the words we don’t use to describe people anymore,” says Ruth Meyer, former director of the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati.
She remembers his beautiful silk sport shirts and tweed jacket in particular. But above all else, she appreciated his support for the arts.
Walter was a cosmopolitan man, Ruth recalls.
He socialized with many members of Cincinnati’s “Café Society” after restoring furniture and commissioning pieces of art for them.
It was during one of those parties in 1972 when Walter first met Ted Gantz.
“Walter and I started talking because we had overlapping friendships,” Ted says.
The two developed a friendship that turned into a relationship, and Ted moved into Walter’s guest room.
But Walter never felt comfortable being open about his partner of 27 years.
The couple’s friends knew Ted lived in Walter’s home, but no one ever brought it up in conversation.
In fact, before Ted, Walter went out with several women. And even after Ted moved into Walter’s guest room, Walter frequently took Ruth as his date to public events.
Walter did not entertain any discussion about his sexuality.
“I always joked we came out in the New York Times obituary,” Ted says with a laugh. “Gay men of Walter’s generation were petrified of being identified.”
Both men loved gardening, but kept their mutual hobby separate.
“Oddly enough, we never gardened together,” Ted says. “He had his, and I had mine.”
It was a small reflection of how their relationship mainly functioned as two parts, and occasionally as a whole.
“Love is painful,” Ted says with a smile.
But to Ted, it was worth it.
“Sometimes in life, love hits you like a brick wall and there are fireworks,” he says. “But then sometimes there’s people you grow into, and that can be much more profound. Walter and I were that way.”
The two shared a passion for the arts and a mutual ambition to make a mark on the art world.
Ted believes that Walter’s desire to effect change came from an uncle who funded a summer in New York City, where Walter first got a glimpse of a world outside his hometown of northeast Ohio.
And it was Walter’s work in the MFA&A decades prior that continued to inform his work in Cincinnati.
“He talked about the Monuments Men all the time,” Ruth remembers. “It was something that he was very proud of — that he had this service. And it was kind of his favorite dinner party story to tell what he had done and who his friends were.”
Walter would often ask Ruth to find a ghostwriter to put his experiences on paper.
Meanwhile, in the Cincinnati art world, he enjoyed helping young artists and formed a chunk of his personal collection through his travels to Italy with Ted, a sculptor and collector in his own right.
“His idea about collecting was, you didn’t have to have the most money to buy the best of the best,” Ted says. “He had extremely good eyes.”
On cultural exchanges, Walter traveled to Russia, Spain, Portugal, Germany and England, all of which determined his vision as an interior designer and personal collector.
When the couple first met, Walter was interested in building a teaching museum on his alma mater’s campus.
He was inspired by Orpha Webster, a professor and mentor during his collegiate years who always wanted Miami to have an art collection.
Walter’s relationship with Miami ebbed and flowed as he butted heads with faculty members who fought his desire for the musuem to be a flagship for teaching, not just a place to display art.
Margaret was heavily involved in helping her father establish the museum at Miami. She had recently become reacquainted with Walter around the same time he met Ted. Both of them knew how desperately Walter wanted to inspire future students to care about beautiful things.
“He gave away his core collection” so the museum could display it, Margaret remembers.
Walter wanted the museum to emphasize modern art as well as the European and English decorative art he donated.
“Collecting is a passion that rules your reason,” Walter said in an interview in spring 1978 while promoting the museum’s opening exhibition.
“I had always been interested in learning more of a particular culture or of a certain area,” he added. “When I came upon a field in which I had little or no knowledge, there was always a great deal to learn. I’ve always read voraciously, and have had an intense desire not to be a stereotypical Midwesterner.”
Walter selected Walter Netsch from the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill to be the architect of the building.
Netsch designed a structure that houses exhibition spaces, a multi-purpose lecture hall and work-study areas for students and faculty.
“A building for art located on the brow of a beautiful site must strive not only to be a working educational environment, but a work of art in itself,” Netch said in October 1978.
The Miami University Art Museum, featuring the Walter Farmer Collections, debuted its opening exhibition on June 17, 1978.
Margaret and Ted both attended.
A few years after the museum opened, a German prehistorian, Klaus Goldmann, contacted Walter about his experience as director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point.
He wanted Walter to fly to Washington, D.C. for an interview.
Klaus wanted to know for his research: What happened to the MFA&A officers who defied orders almost fifty years ago?
The question sparked a renewed sense of purpose in Walter. Walter began answering questions from art directors and contacting old MFA&A colleagues across the country to help Klaus’ research.
Walter leaned on Margaret to translate letters in German; his grasp of the language was no better than it had been when he hired Renate to be his translator nearly five decades before.
But Renate had taught their daughter German. Now father and daughter sifted through letters and articles sent from Europe.
Meanwhile, Walter continued to pester his old friend Ruth Meyer about helping him write his memoir.
Ruth eventually agreed to help write what would eventually become “The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II.”
And after Walter sold Greenwich House, writing this book was what what he wanted to do more than anything else in life.
When Ruth left the Taft Museum in 1993, she and Walter began to meet three times a week for lunch to discuss the book.
She urged Walter to push the German government to recognize the work the MFA&A had accomplished after World War II, but especially how Walter had managed to mobilize the majority of the officers in the division to draft and sign the Wiesbaden Manifesto.
On Sept. 27, 1995, Margaret and Walter learned that the president of Germany, Roman Herzog, had signed for Walter to receive the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the country’s highest civilian medal.
Friday, Feb. 9, 1996
“You disobeyed orders so as to remain true to your country and its ideals. You showed how a democrat and citizen of a free nation acts, one who distinguishes between right and wrong, moral rectitude and opportunism.”
— Dr. Klaus Kinkel, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs
After decades of obscurity, Walter was touched that Germany wanted to honor his and the MFA&A’s protest against the U.S. Army’s orders.
“Walter Farmer’s enduring achievement as an officer in charge of art protection is his firm belief that cultural heritage is at the disposal of no one, not even the victors of war,” said Klaus Kinkel, Germany’s federal minister for foreign affairs, at the ceremony. “The standards of international law, reaffirmed in the Wiesbaden Manifesto, are still highly relevant to today’s global debate on the return of art treasures as a result of war.”
After the trip to Germany to accept the award, Margaret took over writing Walter’s memoirs. Father and daughter spent hours poring over boxes of family mementos and Walter’s letters from his service in World War II and as the Wiesbaden Collecting Point director.
A little over a year after receiving the Commander’s Cross, Walter forced his daughter and partner to go through his apartment, marking which works of art they wanted and which would be donated to the Cincinnati Art Museum and Miami Art Museum.
At first Ted and Margaret were confused why Walter was so insistent on making Margaret and Ted formally sift through his belongings.
It turned out Walter was very sick and had downplayed the ailments from his prostate cancer diagnosis to both Margaret and Ted. The secrecy behind his illness wasn’t an unusual move for the incessantly private Walter.
On Saturday, Aug. 9, 1997, Walter Farmer, the architect, interior designer and original Monument Man, died of complications from cancer.
For Margaret, her father’s life was a testament to instilling a deep respect for art, history, culture and his accomplishments as a Monument Man.
“I can’t say that I ever had Dad’s full energy,” Margaret says. “The learning, the exploring the world … his curiosity has always stayed with me.”
As Ted put it, Walter’s lifetime was spent respecting beautiful things: paintings, fine china, architecture and historical antiquities.
“Our culture made all of those things, so why not value them?”