As we remember the service of our friends and loved ones on this Veterans Day, I thought you might like to hear about the exploits of the Walters Art Museum’s most unsung veteran. Marvin Chauncey Ross was our Curator of Medieval and Subsequent Art from 1939 to 1952. In 1942 he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and saw combat in the South Pacific as Assistant Wing Officer with the first Marine Aircraft Headquarters.
In 1944 the young Ross, now a Captain, was called by General Eisenhower to join the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Commission (MFAA) to assist in the discovery and repatriation of artworks seized by the Nazi occupation forces throughout Europe. His expertise in art and also his language skills enabled his work, and one remarkable event in late 1944 is well worth recounting. He entered the Chateau of Haute Koeningsbourg, in the Alsace region of France where allied troops had identified a cache of artworks hidden by the Germans. On his inspection of the chateau, Ross discovered the Isenheim Alterpiece by Grunewald. It was protected by American forces until the end of hostilities and returned to the Unterlinden Museum in Alsace where it can be seen today. The MFAA units had an enormous task to locate and secure cultural treasures. They often worked alone, and arrived in locations immediately following fierce battles that took place as the Germans retreated. Two MFAA officers were killed in the line of duty.
A little known responsibility of the MFAA officers was to protect buildings and historical sites from the rambling activities of the American “GI”. Many historic buildings and private homes were rescued from the various types of behavior to which war weary enlisted men were prone, if you catch my drift. Apparently Ross was very good at this and as a Marine, he had the much-needed “sensitivity” to perform the task. Even General Eisenhower was rebuffed when his forward staff attempted to relocate artworks from a museum to populate his headquarters! Ross also acted to coordinate the collection and relocation of seized Nazi documents. These now comprise the Captured German Records in the National Archives at College Park. The records include the documentation of the concentration camps and other atrocities and were used in the Nuremberg trials held after the war. The records of the MFAA are also in the National Archives.
Marvin Ross returned to the Walters in May 1945. He had attained the role of Deputy Advisor (chief American officer) of the MFAA. We have approximately 15cu feet of his records here in our archives.
The anxiously awaited Hollywood movie, ”Monuments Men”, is due to be released in January. I was hoping that Ross might be portrayed by George Clooney, but Clooney will instead play the role of George Stout, a conservator who was at the Fogg Museum. Hopefully Captain Ross will make an appearance in this dramatization of the MFAA activities. I am hoping for Brad Pitt!
We thank all of our veterans for their dedication, sacrifice, and service especially those on staff.
Senior Conservator of Book and Paper
Member, The Walters Art Museum Staff Social Committee