Bio image


Bonilla, Lt. Felix J. | Breitenbach, Edgar | Brown, John Nicholas

Breitenbach, Edgar  

Art Intelligence Officer, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Edgar Breitenbach attended the University of Munich for one year before returning home to study at the University of Hamburg. He soon changed his major from Germanic language and literature to study under the famed art historian Erwin Panofsky completing his dissertation in 1929.[1] Having also studied library science for several years, he accepted a position with the Frankfurt State Library, however, the Nazi party forced him to resign in 1933 due to his Jewish heritage. At that time Breitenbach moved to Basel, Switzerland where he became an assistant to Paul Ganz, an expert on Hans Holbein, at the Institute of the History of Swiss Art and Heraldry.[2] In February 1937 he left Europe due to the increasingly hostile Nazi situation and boarded a German passenger freighter bound for San Francisco. Following his arrival, Breitenbach was invited to teach art history at Mills College in Oakland, California and remained there for four years. As he had not yet obtained his American citizenship, Breitenbach spent several years working odd jobs. He taught for one year at a junior college in Aberdeen, Washington, and then moved to Colorado Springs where he worked at the Taylor Museum of the Colorado Springs Art Center writing a book on religious folk art of New Mexico. He also worked as a route man for Texaco, a postal clerk, and a fruit picker before he was granted citizenship in 1943.[3]

From the fall of 1943 until D-Day in 1944, Breitenbach translated German radio broadcasts for the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.) in Washington, D.C. He spent the following year as Chief of Documentary Operations in the Office of War Information, where he worked under future Monuments Man Paul Vanderbilt, editing Roy Stryker’s socioeconomic photo documentary of depression-era America.

In 1945, Breitenbach was assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section.[4] He learned of the opportunity from Sargent Burrage Child, director of the Historical Records Survey, who had already been selected as a Monuments Man. Breitenbach was recommended to the position of archivist in Europe despite the fact that he had never “seen an archive from the inside.”[5] He arrived in Germany in October 1945 and was soon thereafter stationed in Frankfurt returning books and archives to the State Library where he had worked years before. In January of 1946, Monuments officer Maj. Bancel LaFarge transferred Breitenbach to the Munich Collecting Point where he was assigned art intelligence duties previously handled by Lt. Walter Horn.[6]

In this role, Breitenbach worked closely with Monument officer Lt. Bernard Taper to recover so-called “second-generation loot.” This referred to art that was first stolen or removed for safekeeping by the Nazis and then looted again by German citizens desperate for a means of survival in the months following the Allied victory. In the immediate aftermath of the Nazi defeat, German refugees ransacked the abandoned Nazi Party Headquarters at the Verwaltungsbau in Munich, removing everything from food and appliances to furniture and paintings. Among his many projects, Breitenbach investigated the missing Schloss Collection of paintings, which were stolen from the French-Jewish collector during the war and kept at the Verwaltungsbau for Hitler’s personal enjoyment. He also investigated the whereabouts of items stolen from a train abandoned by the retreating German army outside of Berchtesgaden. The train contained items from Göring’s personal collection at Carinhall which were being evacuated in April 1945 to the Bavarian countryside.

Breitenbach was an enthusiastic and successful investigator who “pursued these missing works patiently – like a wily fisherman.”[7] During his investigations, Breitenbach often pardoned citizens guilty of illegal dealings in exchange for truthful information that led to the recovery of an artwork. This system proved to be most productive as citizens were more likely to come forward with information. A description written by his associate, Monuments Officer Lt. Bernard Taper, follows:

A squat, middle-aged man, with a stubby pipe invariably smoldering in his mouth, he always seemed to be having the time of his life, even when trying to act solemn. During our Berchtesgaden investigations, he habitually dressed in Bavarian peasant garb, and not long after we had arrived there on our first visit, I heard that the German chief of police of Berchtesgaden had sent out a puzzled inquiry, wanting to know who this man was who was running around the country in lederhosen, speaking with a Hamburg accent through a pipe and claiming to be an American officer and doctor of arts.8

Breitenbach held the MFAA position until 1949 when the Allied High Commission for Germany was established. At this time he became an officer in the Cultural Relations Division, Section for Fine Arts, Museums, Libraries and Archives for several years. From 1952 to 1955 he supervised the construction and organization of the American Memorial Library in Berlin. After spending a decade in Germany working on restitution and recovery efforts, Breitenbach returned to Washington, D.C. in 1956 to accept a position at the Library of Congress where he remained the chief of the Prints and Photographs Division until his retirement in 1973.9 For his work in Germany, he was honored with a citation for meritorious service and was also given the Commander’s Cross, Order of Merit from the German government.10 Edgar Breitenbach died in 1977 while in Germany.

1. Edgar Breitenbach, interview by Paul Cummings, February 18, 1975, transcript, Oral History Program of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Bernard Taper, “Investigating Art Looting for the MFA&A,” in The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath, edited by Elizabeth Simpson (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997), 136.
8. Ibid., 137.
9. Edgar Breitenbach, interview by Paul Cummings, February 18, 1975.
10. Opritsa D. Popa, Bibliophiles and Bibliothieves (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003) 226.



Copyrighted by Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art