February 7, 2014

The genius of Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck will be on display at the Legion of Honor beginning this week in his elegant Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1620), a work with an intriguing history that is tied to the museum’s own. Thomas Carr Howe Jr., director of the Legion of Honor from 1939 to 1968, was a leading figure with the “Monuments Men”—the art and museum professionals of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, who were dispatched to Europe toward the end of World War II to rescue some of the world’s greatest art treasures from Nazi looting.

Hermann Göring, Adolph Hitler’s second in command, spearheaded the looting across occupied Europe on behalf of the German state and for his own vast personal collection, which he maintained at Carinhall, his country estate northeast of Berlin. Among them was this portrait, which he purchased in 1940 from Amsterdam. Evacuated to Hitler’s hideaway in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Göring’s bounty was discovered by Howe himself, and it was collected along with his other holdings and sent to the Munich Central Collection Point, where much of the stolen art—including Portrait of a Lady—was stored, inventoried, and then returned to its rightful owners.

In the ensuing years, Portrait of a Lady passed through various other hands before being generously donated to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco by Roscoe and Margaret Oakes in the mid-1970s, just a few years after Howe retired. The renewed interest in this story and others like it as a result of the new film The Monuments Men, reminding us of the great efforts those volunteers offered, who were responsible for the return of some of the world’s greatest artworks.