A Monument Man's masterpieces turn up in northern NH
BERLIN -- The memory of Walter Johan Huchthausen, killed during World War II while rescuing cultural masterpieces from the Nazis, lives on in a new motion picture that celebrates "The Monuments Men," but especially in a trove of drawings attributed to him that was just discovered here in the North Country.
Well before the June 6, 1944, invasion of Normandy, representatives from the United States and the Allies gathered to discuss how a variety of art that was stolen or threatened by the retreating Nazis could be protected, and, ultimately, recovered and returned to its rightful owners.
The Allied Military Government established the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, whose 300-plus members went on to become known as "The Monuments Men." The name is both the title of George Clooney's new movie and of the 2009 book by Robert M. Edsel, from which the film was adapted.
The MFAA was made up of artists, historians, curators and architects like Huchthausen, who, according to his profile on the fields-of-honor database, which is operated by a Dutch non-profit group that adopts the graves of Americans killed in Europe during WWII, was born in Perry, Okla., in 1904.
On Jan. 7, Paul Croteau, 54, a Berlin native, learned about Huchthausen for the first time thanks to a phone call from Norman Thibodeau, the owner of Great North Woods Container Services in Berlin.
Croteau said Thibodeau knew he was an art collector and called him after clearing out a vacant house in Gorham. Thibodeau told him were 13 pieces — pencil, crayon and mixed media — that he might like.
Croteau recalled that the pieces were dirty and damaged and resting next to a trash bin in Thibodeau's garage, but it was clear they were the work of an accomplished artist.
After negotiating their purchase from Thibodeau for $325, Croteau began cleaning the artworks. He did an Internet search on the artist whose name appeared on several of them: It was Huchthausen, a Monuments Man.
With a track record of finding valuable works of art in unlikely places, Croteau said he felt the exhilaration of a potentially significant find. Croteau showed the work to Andre Belanger, a Berlin artist who has helped him evaluate some of his earlier discoveries.
As an artist, Belanger, 57, said he was "tickled pink" and "floored" by Huchthausen's clear mastery of drawing techniques. But as the son of a World War II veteran, he said he was struck even more deeply by the idea that people like Huchthausen "would risk their lives for art."
Had it not been for Thibodeau and Croteau, the artworks found in that house in Gorham would have been "on the way to a Dumpster," Belanger said.
A gallery wall would be an appropriate place for the Huchthausen works, he said. Some are studies of classical architecture, while others are examples of a post-industrial sensibility. Others, bright and vibrant, hint of art deco.
Not all of the pieces are signed, but it's clear, said Belanger, that they were all created "by the same hand."
Although there is no way to assess their value, Croteau thinks his latest acquisitions will find a wide audience and possibly a new owner. While he wants to share them with the world — which he said he is willing to do now by appointment — Croteau said his real goal is to sell the Huchthausens so that he can afford to continue doing what he loves best: finding other rare, beautiful things.
"I just love looking for art," he said, "I'm always in search of history."
For now, that search includes trying to find an answer to a fundamental question: How did the Huchthausen artworks end up in Gorham? Croteau said Thibodeau told him the pieces were acquired by the owner of the Gorham house in auctions, but it's not clear when or where.
Belanger thinks George Clooney would be the ideal caretaker of Huchthausen's legacy; Croteau said wherever his work is exhibited, Huchthausen should be in the company of similarly gifted artists.
"They should hang next to a Picasso or a Michelangelo," said Croteau.
Belanger said Huchthausen was a great artist but an even greater man, with the work found in that Gorham house foreshadowing Huchthausen's later life as a "monuments" man.
"Here's this guy, studying the things he's going to save," said Belanger. Huchthausen, he concluded, wasn't just saving specific works of art; he was saving the idea of art and protecting the innate human need to be creative.
Huchthausen attended the University of Minnesota and later Harvard University, where he received his master of architecture degree in 1930. He subsequently taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and directed the design department at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts before returning to UM to teach.
Enlisting in the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, Huchthausen was injured in a Luftwaffe bombing of London. After recovering, he was subsequently attached to the MFAA.
On April 2, 1945, while driving a Jeep to investigate reports of an altarpiece near Aachen, Germany, Huchthausen was killed by enemy machine-gun fire. He was buried in the American War Cemetery Margarten. A captain at the time of his death, Huchthausen was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star.
The fame of Edsel's book, which increased when "The Monuments Men" movie was released late last month, focused a renewed interest on the MFAA and on Huchthausen, who was profiled in newspaper articles in Oklahoma and Minnesota.
Croteau, the collector
Growing up in Berlin, Croteau said he was always intrigued by the connection between history and art. After quitting Berlin High School in the 10th grade, Croteau served in the military and worked as a machinist for General Electric.
In between those pursuits, Croteau enrolled at what is now the White Mountains Community College in Berlin and earned two associate's degrees, one in mechanical drafting, the other in machine-tool process.
Those degrees, Croteau believes, help him to look at an object and understand the craftsmanship that went into making it; that sent him deeper into the antiquing and estate-sale worlds.
In the days before the Internet and Google, Croteau said he bought an old bronze pitcher for a dollar and then took it to Andre Belanger; a friendship was born. Croteau later sold the pitcher for $1,200.
Belanger — who in 2000 demonstrated sign carving as part of the New Hampshire program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. — designed the state of New Hampshire Medal of Honor. In 2006, he was commissioned by the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund to design and create the New Hampshire Profile Award.
Belanger continues to marvel at Croteau's prowess in finding objets d'art, most recently a cigarette case that was part of a $130 lot at an estate sale in Northumberland.
Heavily overlaid with enamel, the cigarette box proved to be made of gold and manufactured by a company whose name is synonymous with opulence — Faberge. Croteau said he eventually sold the box for $16,000.