A British Art Historian and Collector Monuments Man: Douglas Cooper

This is the tenth in a series of posts on real-life Monuments Men. Today’s post is by Dr. Greg Bradsher. See related posts on Sir Charles Leonard WoolleyWalter J. HuchthausenSeymour J. PomrenzeMason HammondEdith StandenKarol EstreicherS. Lane FaisonSir Hilary Jenkinson, and Walter Horn.

The forthcoming movie, The Monuments Men, has focused great attention on the Monuments Men (and women) and their work during and after World War II.  Of course the movie cannot tell the story of the over 300 individuals involved in Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) work, so focuses on three: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland, played by George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett respectively.  Over the past two months, I discussed some of the lesser known individuals.

This post focuses on Douglas Cooper of the Royal Air Force, and is the tenth in the series of blogs on the Monuments Men.

Arthur William Douglas Cooper was born to an extremely wealthy family in London on February 20, 1911. He was educated at Cambridge, Marburg and the Sorbonne, and at the age of twenty-one came into an inheritance of £100,000.  After a short stint as an art dealer in London in 1933, he pursued a career as an art historian and collector.  By 1939 he had amassed a collection of 137 cubist works primarily focused on the works of four avant-garde artists: Juan Gris, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, and Pablo Picasso.

At the outbreak of World War II he joined an ambulance unit in Paris and earned the Médaille Militaire for his work moving the wounded to safety in Bordeaux.  Back in England he joined Royal Air Force Intelligence and was sent to Cairo to interview prisoners of war.  He also interrogated prisoners of war at Malta.

By the late spring of 1944, Cooper had joined the MFA&A Section of the Operations Branch, G-5 Division of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) and was serving with the German Country Unit, under Major Mason Hammond, developing policies and procedures for use in Germany.  He also became involved with intelligence matters as it related to German looting of cultural property.  In the latter part of August Cooper, recently promoted to Squadron Leader (equivalent of a major in the Army),  was reassigned to the Control Commission for Germany (British Element), headed by Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, who also served as Adviser on Art and Archaeology to the War Office.  In his new capacity Cooper worked closely with the Americans serving with the MFA&A Section (headed by Hammond) of the newly established United States Group Control Commission (USGCC) as well as with the SHAEF MFA&A personnel, as the respective organizations did their planning, research, and investigation necessary for the accomplishing their missions in occupied Germany.

In January 1945, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, the head of the SHAEF MFA&A operations, asked Cooper and Hammond to come to SHAEF headquarters at Versailles to discuss the MFA&A organization to be set up in Germany by Webb, as well as the relevant plans and information he expected from Cooper’s and Hammond’s units, and the intelligence needs of all MFA&A branches and possible means of satisfying them.  They left England on January 24 and arrived that night at Versailles.  During the next ten days, with the exception of three days (January 28-30), spent in traveling and conferring with Monuments Man George Stout at HQ 12th Army Group headquarters at Verdun, Cooper and Hammond spent all their time in the Paris area.  In their meeting with Stout they discussed the development of civil administration for monuments and collections in Germany under Military Government; development of data on German civil personnel; exchange of information on German repositories; and, means of conveying documentary information from the field to higher headquarters.  Cooper and Hammond had similar conversations with Webb and other MFA&A personnel.  While Hammond returned to England, Cooper stayed a couple of weeks longer.

On one of his forays into Paris Cooper was able to review the records of the Paris offices of Schenker International Transport, a large German transport company that specialized in transporting works of art.  The company was used by several German buyers, and it enjoyed a close relation with the German embassy in Paris, which used it to warehouse, pack, and transport confiscated art to Germany.  His April 5, 1945 report on the Schenker files provides evidence of art transactions that took place between January 1941 and July 1942; descriptions of artworks sent off to Germany; lists of German buyers and the works they bought; and, the names of the French dealers involved, and the dates of the transactions.  This information would prove invaluable to the Monuments Men after the war.

In February Cooper went to Switzerland to represent both the MFA&A and the French Recuperation Commission to obtain intelligence on the Swiss art trade.  He traveled to Switzerland with the cover title of Technical Adviser to the British Trade Delegation, which was then negotiating with the Swiss regarding German-Swiss economic relations and German assets.  During his time in Switzerland he tried to piece together the movement of looted artworks into and out of Switzerland, and documented his findings in a report dated March 22, 1945.  From Switzerland Cooper proceeded to Italy and then returned to England.

On March 26 Woolley resigned his position as Director of the MFA&A Section, Control Commission for Germany (British Element), and Cooper immediately replaced him, in the capacity of Acting Director.  During the remainder of the war Cooper would play in an important role in cooperating with SHAEF MFA&A, the USGCC, the Office of Strategic Services, the Roberts Commission (American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas), and other organizations in making plans to deal with the post-hostilities phase of MFA&A work and intelligence matters connected with MFA&A operations.  Frequently his discussions involved the exploitation of captured documents; interrogations of enemy personnel; and, the development of lists and catalogs of missing works of art.

After World War II, he settled in France and spent the next forty years as an art critic of modern art, writer of a catalogue raisonné on Paul Gauguin (never completed), and author of monographs and catalogues on 19th century artists such as Degas, van Gogh and Renoir, as well as the cubist masters.  He passed away on April 1, 1984.

Much of Cooper’s MFA&A career can be followed in the Subject File Aug 1943-1945 (Entry 55B), Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 331; Security Classified General Correspondence, 1943-July 1949 (Entry 463), General Records, Civil Affairs Division, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165; and, the Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Record Group 239; and, the Douglas Cooper Papers at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, California.

One thought on “A British Art Historian and Collector Monuments Man: Douglas Cooper

  1. The most interesting part of Douglas Cooper’s career is his postwar trafficking in and collecting Nazi-looted art. Let’s hope museum scholars start looking deeper.

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