Charles Parkhurst, recoverer of stolen art, dies at 95

IHT 29 June 2008
By William Grimes

Charles Parkhurst, a museum director in Baltimore and Washington and one of the "monuments men," a team that chased down leads, pried open crates and snooped around museums, salt mines and castles in search of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, died Thursday at his home in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Carol Clark.

As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and an art historian, Parkhurst was deputy chief of Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives in Germany immediately after the war.

The team - approved by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1943 and widely known as the Roberts Commission after its chairman, Justice Owen Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court, attracted an international group of young museum directors and curators, art professors and architects.

The mission of the monuments men was to identify art works and buildings in need of protection and to ferret out caches of art stolen by the Germans.

"Germans are very methodical in general and by training and habit, and they kept very good records," Parkhurst said.

Beginning in the last year of the war, the group found and returned more than five million artifacts and art works to their owners. Parkhurst and a team of more than 30 investigators, operating from the national headquarters of the Nazi Party in Munich, ultimately identified 1,056 repositories of looted art.

"The greatest treasures were in ancient salt mines near Aussee, near Salzburg," Austria, Parkhurst told an interviewer for The Archives of American Art in 1982. "That's where the Van Eyck altarpiece was; the Bruges Madonna of Michelangelo was there."

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria turned out to be a particularly rich trove, filled with art stolen from the Rothschilds in Paris. "We shipped back 49 train carloads of art from there," Parkhurst said.

For his role in returning looted art, the French government made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1948.

Charles Percy Parkhurst was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Oberlin. He earned a bachelor of arts degree at Williams College in Massachusetts in 1935 and spent two years building roads and bridges in Alaska before resuming his education, earning a master's at Oberlin College in 1938 and a master of fine arts at Princeton University in 1941.

As an art historian, he first concentrated on Byzantine art, but after becoming intrigued by the palette of Rubens, he shifted his attention to color theory in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1938, he married Elizabeth Huntington Rusling. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his marriage in 1962 to Rima Zevin Julyan. He married Clark in 1986.

In addition to Julyan and Clark, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Andrew Wells Parkhurst and Ruth Huntington Parkhurst; a daughter, Brooke Woodbridge Parkhurst and three stepchildren, Candace, David and Mark, from his second marriage; and four grandchildren. A second son from his first marriage, Christopher, died in 2003.

After working as an assistant curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Parkhurst served in the Navy as a gunnery officer in the Mediterranean. As the war in Europe wound down, he was recommended for the art recovery team. In some respects, his work was helped by the Nazis themselves.

"Germans are very methodical in general and by training and habit, and they kept very good records," Parkhurst said. "Even the looters kept good records, and they'd loot stuff from Italy, France, wherever, pack it in cases very well, and then make complete and thorough lists of the contents of each package and mark the boxes."

On Nov. 7, 1945, Parkhurst and other officers created a furor when they signed the Wiesbaden Manifesto, a letter of protest declaring their refusal to help move German-owned artworks to the United States for safekeeping. "We believed first of all that the language was the same the Nazis had used when they looted, which was 'protective custody,"' he said. "We thought that was a bad omen."

After Eleanor Roosevelt appealed to General Lucius Clay, the deputy military governor of Germany, the plan was dropped.

After leaving the navy in 1946, Parkhurst was an assistant curator at the Albright Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, an assistant professor of art and archaeology at Princeton and assistant director of the Princeton Art Museum. He then returned to Oberlin in 1949 to lead its fine arts department and the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

From 1962 to 1970 Parkhurst was director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. As president of the American Association of Museums from 1966 to 1968, he developed an accreditation system for museums similar to the one used by universities. In 1970. he was named assistant director and chief curator of the National Gallery of Art as the museum prepared to break ground for the construction of its East Building.

After retiring from the National Gallery in 1983, Parkhurst taught and held museum positions at Williams College and Smith College.

A few years ago, while looking at Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Parkhurst became intrigued by the possible influence of the theater on Giotto's art. Like the reds, blues and yellows in Rubens, the idea gripped him, and he pursued it doggedly. Well into his 90s, he was still chasing after art.
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