Walter I. Farmer: new perspectives on the “Monuments Man” and MUAM founding donor

Alo Altripp painting
Walter Farmer was introduced to contemporary art through Alo Altripp and bought this painting from him. Alo Altripp (German, 1906–1991), Composition in Red, 1938, oil on paper, Cincinnati Art Museum; Bequest of Walter I. Farmer, 1997.195, © Estate of Alo Altripp.

By Dr. Jack Green, Jeffrey Horrell ’75 and Rodney Rose Director and Chief Curator at the Miami University Art Museum. 

On my recent arrival to Miami University this summer, I was immediately struck by the impact and legacy of Walter I. Farmer to the development of the Art Museum as well as his contribution to the safeguarding of cultural treasures in Germany at the close of the Second World War. 

Walter Farmer (1911-1997), graduated from Miami University in 1935 with a B.A. in mathematics and architecture. He went on to become a successful interior designer and art collector. Later in his life, alongside Art Department faculty member Orpha Webster, he provided inspiration for the creation of the Miami University Art Museum. As a result, an important part of his collection of antiquities were donated to the museum.  Yet it is his exploits during the Second World War that have garnered the most public attention and interest over the years. A special exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum (July 9 – October 3 2021) and accompanying publication, tells the story of an important group of paintings called the “Berlin 202,” and focuses on the legacy of Walter Farmer as a “Monuments Man” whose legacy is intertwined with these artworks. His story is particularly important in the history of the restitution of cultural property in times of conflict.

Walter Farmer holding a painting at Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Lindsay C. Kenneth Papers, Special Collections, Binghamton University Libraries, Binghamton University, State University of New York.

The exhibition, entitled Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America focuses largely on the protection of and restitution of artworks in Germany during and after World War II. The exhibition’s introductory focus on Walter Farmer, then a US Army Captain and a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives program, is illuminating. At the close of the war, Farmer directed the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, safeguarding artworks from German museums and private collections. When faced with a directive to select two-hundred European paintings intended for a traveling exhibit to the United States in 1945, Farmer, alongside others, was concerned they might be treated as “spoils of war,” thus setting a dangerous precedent. 

Robert Edsel, founder of the Monuments Men Foundation, spoke at the exhibition opening event, paying tribute to Farmer’s strong ethical stance and the important role that he played in standing up for what was right at a time of great social and political upheaval, and presumably at personal risk to his career. While serving in occupied Germany, Farmer was instrumental in preparing the “Wiesbaden Manifesto,” a petition which impacted decisions leading to the return of these paintings to Germany. We wonder today what may have happened if some or all of these paintings had become a permanent part of the collections of Art Museums in the United States. It would have set a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow suit, turning artworks into symbols of victory over defeated enemies, effectively holding cultural heritage hostage.     

One of the “Berlin 202” on exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, on loan from Germany. Sandro Botticelli (Italian, 1445–1510), Ideal Portrait of a Lady (“Simonetta Vespucci”), 1475–80, tempera on poplar panel, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, 106 A.

The exhibition presents loans of some of the paintings of the original “Berlin 202,” including Ideal Portrait of a Lady (1475-80) by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) from the State Museum, Berlin. The exhibition also draws attention to Farmer’s role as collector and donor. A number of artworks Farmer gifted to the Cincinnati Art Museum are presented, including two abstract paintings sold to Farmer by Alo Altripp, a German artist who introduced him to contemporary art while he was director of the Wiesbaden Collecting Point. 

Of his many interests, Walter Farmer also collected antiquities and he was interested in the world of ancient art. A famous picture shows him standing next to the retrieved ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti in Germany, which was to be safely returned to its place in the Neues Museum, Berlin where it remains to this day. It is ironic that Egypt today demands the repatriation of this famous portrait.

Hydria. Attic (Greece) attributed to Lydos, ca. 550 BCE. Glazed terracotta, black-figure ware. H. 15.5. Gift of Walter I. Farmer, 1978.C.2.124. Miami University Art Museum. Photo: J. Green.

Of the approximately 1300 artworks now in the Miami University Art Museum donated by Farmer in 1978, there are many ancient artifacts from the Graeco-Roman world. They include a famous Greek Attic black figure Hydria (water jar), attributed to the circle of Lydos, dated to the mid-6th century BCE, one of just a few to be found in American collections. The Hydria was among many artifacts thought to have been unearthed by tomb raiders at the Etruscan cemetery of Cerveteri, Italy, in the mid-19th century. There are also artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean, Egypt, the Near East, and the Americas on display in the collection. Most of these types of objects originated from ancient sites and were typically acquired through the art market, before being gifted to the museum. Therefore, little is known about their precise origins and what stories they may be able to tell if their archaeological context had been documented. 

Current display in the Global Perspectives gallery at the Miami University Art Museum. Most of these displayed ancient objects come from the Walter I. Farmer collection. Photo. J. Green.

What new perspectives can archives and objects in museum collections can tell us about the lives and motivations of art collectors such as Walter Farmer?  Painting, Politics, and the Monuments Men gives us one part of the story – particularly in relation to his role in the protection of European art. Ars Longa, Vita Brevis (skillfulness takes time, life is short), the title of the 1996 exhibition and catalog of ancient art from the Walter Farmer collection at the Miami University Art Museum, provides additional viewpoints and motivations which can be further explored for his collecting of ancient art. Both celebrate the life and passion of a person deeply motivated by the duration and diversity of human creative heritage and its preservation in museums.  

Paintings, Politics and the Monuments Men: The Berlin Masterpieces in America, is open through October 3, 2021 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. An illuminating volume of the same title by co-curators Peter J. Bell and Kristi A. Nelson (GILES, 2020) accompanies the exhibition. This includes memories of Walter Farmer as recounted by Margaret Farmer Planton and Theodore Gantz. Farmer’s memoirs are published in the book The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II (de Gruyter, 2000). Many items from the Walter I. Farmer collection can be seen on view in the Global Perspectives Display at the Miami University Art Museum with many published, including the Attic Hydria mentioned above, in Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Ancient Art from the Walter I. Farmer Collection, edited by Edna C. Southard (Miami University Art Museum, 1996). 

Jack Green, PhD, is the Jeffrey Horrell ’75 and Rodney Rose Director and Chief Curator at the Miami University Art Museum.