Ardelia Ripley Hall helped recover looted artifacts

Cape Cod Times 18 February 2014
By Sean F Driscoll

Photo 1 of 1  |  View Enlarged Photo
Top Photo
Ardelia Ripley Hall returns a portrait of St. Catherine by Rubens to Germany in 1952.Smith College

The George Clooney film "The Monuments Men" is more than just a popcorn movie for Louise Bombara — it's a page of her family's history.

Bombara's great-aunt Ardelia Ripley Hall was an art historian who worked for the U.S. government as part of the team tasked with rescuing millions of artistic and cultural artifacts looted during World War II.

Although Hall is not portrayed in the movie that dramatizes those events, she helped return more than 1,300 pieces of art to their rightful owners through the early 1960s, when she retired. She died in 1979.

Despite her role in history, Bombara, 50, of East Falmouth, said her great-aunt (Hall was the sister of her paternal grandmother) was taciturn about her decades of work for the government.

"I thought she was just an art historian and museum curator," Bombara said. "I think back then, it was not considered nice for women to do these kinds of things. She did what she did because she needed to work; it was offered up to her. She was in the right place at the right time. But I think she truly believed that if these things were lost forever, the culture would be lost."

Hall was born in Weymouth in 1899 and was raised in Cohasset. After getting a bachelor's degree from Smith College and a master's from Columbia University, she worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as a curatorial assistant.

She left that job when she became engaged in the early 1940s, but broke off the betrothal the day before her wedding after her fiance demanded she sign a prenuptial agreement stating they would never have children. She never married and had no children, instead dedicating her life to her studies and her work with the State Department's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section.

Most of the work she did was from Washington, tracking down artwork that had been looted from Europe and that ended up in collections across the globe. She did similar work for art that was stolen during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

"She was an intellect," said Bombara, who is a substitute teacher in Falmouth and owns the Nantucket Toy Co. in Falmouth with her sister, Anne West. "She was serious about her work. ... I didn't feel she was particularly respected, and that's kind of sad. That's why I'm so glad that people are becoming aware and noticing it now. She was very passionate about it."

Victoria Reed, curator for provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts, has recently researched Hall's work leading up to her time with the State Department, a task that came up quite by accident.

"We had two boxes of her materials transferred to us by Smith College. We'd had them for over 10 years and I don't think anyone had gone through them," Reed said.

At the suggestion of a colleague, she sorted through the material. Much of it was miscellaneous notes and materials without much historical significance, but Reed also found notes and correspondence from her time at the MFA that shed light on Hall's path to the museum and her dedication to her work. Reed took that material and wrote an article highlighting Hall's work leading up to her role at the State Department; the piece is due to be published in the International Journal for Cultural Property in the next month.

"I think that her time is long overdue," Reed said. "The MFA is very proud of her and proud of the work that she's done. She was an assistant in a museum run entirely by men. That she should go on to this role of prominence is really an extraordinary achievement."

"The Monuments Men" movie, which also stars Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, earned $22.7 million in its opening weekend and another $15 million during the Presidents Day weekend, according to The Associated Press. Bombara saw the movie but didn't think much of it.

"I was really disappointed," she said. "It was very light and kind of flat. I really don't understand how they made something that was such a serious thing into a cartoon."

Still, Bombara said she's glad the movie is shedding renewed light on what, until just a few years ago, had been an overlooked chapter of the war.

"She did what she thought was the right thing to do," she said of her great-aunt. "When she died, she didn't know that anyone would ever care about it. I think it's nice that people do care, that we're recognizing people who live among us are doing these things. It happens all the time, we're just not aware of it."
© website copyright Central Registry 2023