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Otto Wittmann papers relating to the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the United States Office of Strategic Services, 1933-2000, bulk 1945-1946

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Otto Wittmann papers relating to the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the United States Office of Strategic Services

Biographical / Historical

Otto Wittmann was born on September 1, 1911, in Kansas City, Missouri, the son of a successful businessman who had found a niche in the newly developing automobile industry. While Wittmann grew up in Kansas City, attending public and then private schools, he had little exposure to art. No art museum had been opened yet in Kansas City before Wittmann joined Harvard University as a freshman in 1929. However, during his years at Harvard from 1929 to 1933, Wittmann attended courses at the Fogg Art Museum and chose to major in art history. He became acquainted with numerous students of Paul Sachs who would become museum and cultural leaders, such as Perry T. Rathbone (1911-2000), who became a close friend and later became director of the St. Louis Art Museum and then of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Graduating in the midst of the Great Depression, Wittmann was unable financially to pursue graduate studies. He took on a position at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (then known as The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and the Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts) in September 1933 while the museum was still under construction and only three months before it opened to the public. Working under Director Paul Gardner, Wittmann quickly learned numerous practical aspects of museum work, including gallery installation; how to crate and uncrate objects, and arrange the vaults; registrarial and curatorial work; how to prepare educational programs, lectures and booklets; and the care and exhibition of the print collection.

In 1937, when many of his peers from Harvard had completed their graduate studies but could boast of only a theoretical understanding of a career in the arts, Wittmann, armed with an unusual amount of practical experience, became an assistant to Paul Sachs at the Fogg Museum. This enabled him to attend Sachs's one-year Museum Course at no cost and to gain skills in connoisseurship and authentication, as well as to develop relationships with collectors and dealers. He was subsequently appointed curator of the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, a position he held until he was drafted into the army in 1941 due to the outbreak of World War II. Shortly thereafter, placed on reserve, he briefly took on a position as Assistant Director of the Portland Art Museum before resuming service following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He joined the personnel of the Air Transport Command in Washington and then the War Department, rapidly rising through the military ranks from second lieutenant to major.

On August 3, 1945, Wittmann was transferred to the Art Looting Investigating Unit (ALIU) of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in the War Department, X2 Branch. Unlike the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit (MFAA), which focused on fieldwork and restitution effort, the ALIU of the OSS--one of the early forms of organized intelligence in the US prior to the creation of the CIA in 1947--was charged with the gathering, analysis and dissemination of intelligence information related to art looting during the war. The ALIU consisted of two offices: its headquarters in Washington and an Operations Office in London. Wittmann was appointed head desk of the office in Washington.

The bulk of the reports on Nazi art looting issued by the ALIU had been prepared in 1945 and 1946 by James Sachs Plaut, the nephew of Paul Sachs, Theodore Rousseau, and S. Lane Faison. They succeeded in exposing the role of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in France in helping to build Hermann Goering's art collection as well as the Sonderauftrag Linz. Wittmann traveled to Europe after the ALIU's final report had been issued in May 1946, which highlighted areas that had been insufficiently investigated. He was sent by the War Department to Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden and Germany to conduct investigations from June to September 1946, and to analyze the role played by Hans Adolf Wendland in relation to the transfer of artworks from France to the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, which had held auctions of international standing during the war. In his report on Wendland, Wittmann noted dryly that he wasn't convinced by Wendland's claim that all of his export papers to travel in and out of countries during the war had been received from German officials for only "the price of four kilograms of chocolate." He maintained a sense of detachment or moderation and took no position on whether the United States should have received a trophy in the form of an artwork as compensation for its enormous participation in the art restitution effort. Wittmann observed that in his case the real trophy of this mission in 1946 was that it allowed him to develop friendships with European colleagues. This would enable him throughout his career to pull from a network of art experts for the evaluation of potential acquisitions and to organize extraordinary exhibitions thanks to the rare loans he could receive from Europe.

In June 1945, Wittmann married Margaret Hill, who would have a profound influence on the development of his career. A graduate of Radcliffe College, Hill had participated in the archeological digs organized in Greece by the American School of Classical Studies. Although Hill had not made it on the list of MFAA prepared by Edith Standen, which gathered the names of those that had assisted with the protection of art during World War II, Hill had also been a member of the OSS. Later she would assist the institutions that Wittmann worked for in her area of specialization, while also performing important public functions for them. Shortly after Wittmann's resignation from the OSS on October 6, 1946, the young couple moved to Toledo, where Wittmann took on the newly created position of assistant director at the Toledo Art Museum. The museum attracted Wittmann for its unusually ambitious education program--an interest he had developed in Kansas City--and for its community and civic service to the city of Toledo, a role that his war experience had made him appreciate. The modesty of the museum's collection would become an opportunity for Wittmann to take an active role in acquisitions, one that he could play with more freedom than his colleagues at more prestigious institutions on the East Coast could. Although his appointment was planned to be of brief tenure, the Wittmanns remained in Toledo until 1977, raising a family there and helping propel the museum into one of the most esteemed collections in the country with the acquisitions of magnificent artworks, such as the Crowning of Saint Catherine by Rubens, originally thought by another institution to be a later copy.

Wittmann participated in federal initiatives, advocating public funding for art institutions during his tenure as president of the College Art Association (CAA) and president of the Association of Art Museums (AAM). President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the first National Council on the Arts, a precursor to the National Endowment of the Arts, in 1964, and Wittmann served as advisor for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Upon his retirement from the Toledo Art Museum in 1977, Wittmann moved to Los Angeles shortly after J. Paul Getty passed away. Wittmann served as a consultant and trustee to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from 1977 to 1979. Afterwards he served at the Getty Museum and then the Getty Trust from 1978 until 1994 in roles including consultant, trustee, acting chief curator, and chair of the Art Acquisitions Committee, helping build the museum's collections, as he had done in Toledo. Wittmann articulated a vision for the Getty beyond that of the traditional model of the museum: in 1980, he devised a chart for the organization that incorporated four programs, each with its own director reporting to the president of the Trust: Museum, Education, Research (which featured a research art library), and a Foundation. Harold Williams would later on devise another chart for the organization. Wittmann has been credited with fostering the civic duty of the institution, so that its unusually rich resources would not isolate it from its sister institutions, and not prevent them from also building collections of their own. Upon his retirement, he and Margaret Wittmann moved to Montecito near Santa Barbara, where he passed away in 2001.

Sources consulted:

- Sally Anne Duncan. Otto Wittmann : Museum Man for All Seasons. Toledo, OH : Toledo Museum of Art, 2001.

- The Museum in the Creation of Community : Otto Wittmann / interviewed by Richard Càndida Smith ; Art History Oral Documentation Project compiled under the auspices of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995.

- Muchnic, Suzanne. "On the Trails of Spoils of War," Los Angeles Times 1995 June 4.




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