John Nicholas Brown II (1900-1979)
Philanthropist, art connoisseur, and real estate broker, John Nicholas Brown was born in New York City on February 21, 1900. His family’s wealth and influence retraces three centuries from the founding of colonial Rhode Island in the seventeenth century, to the establishment of a successful trade empire in the eighteenth century, and to the founding of Brown University in the nineteenth century. The sole heir to this impressive legacy, Brown devoted much of his life to continuing the efforts of his forebears. He served briefly during World War I before completing two degrees from Harvard University in 1922 and 1928, respectively. Under the guidance of Paul Sachs, Director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art, Brown began amassing his own art collection. While he intended to pursue a Ph.D. in art history, the economic turmoil of the early Great Depression forced him to assume responsibility for the family’s business affairs.
During World War II, Brown directed the civil defense unit in Newport, Rhode Island and served as a councilman on the Newport Representative Council. In March 1945 he joined the MFAA Branch of the U.S. Group Control Commission for Germany. As the official Advisor on Cultural Matters to the Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Lucius D. Clay, Brown was in a unique position to advocate for the best interests of art. He helped formulate the United States’ policy for the protection and preservation of cultural heritage in the last days of the war, as well as plans for the restitution of looted objects from the various postwar collecting points. He conducted inspections of MFAA offices and field activities in England, Italy, France, and Germany, and submitted reports for their continued improvement. He also negotiated restitution terms with multiple foreign dignitaries and representatives. As a result of his efforts, Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, which had been discovered in the salt mine at Altaussee, was returned to Belgium in August 1945, the first formal return by the Western Allies of a major work of art stolen by the Nazis.
In the course of his duties, Brown was forced to navigate U.S. Army red tape and politics in order to ensure the salvage and restitution of looted art. He was particularly vocal in regards to the U.S. Army’s ill-fated plan to move 202 German-owned works of art across the Atlantic Ocean for “safekeeping” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Like many of his colleagues in the MFAA, he was opposed to the idea because he felt it would reflect poorly on the MFAA and damage future restitution efforts. In response to an official memo sent out by Lt. Gen. Lucius Clay, Deputy Military Governor in Germany (and Brown’s superior officer), he wrote a letter denouncing the plan which is a line-by-line deconstruction of Clay’s original. In the letter, Brown references Clay as being “under a grave misapprehension” while calling the plan “manifestly impossible” and “not only immoral but hypocritical.” Despite the impassioned efforts of Brown and his colleagues, the shipment went forward as planned.
For his tireless efforts in the return of looted cultural property, Brown was named an Officer of the French Legion of Honor and a Commander of the Belgian Order of Leopold.
Following his return to the United States in August 1945, Brown was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air by President Harry S. Truman, a post he filled until 1949. The remainder of his life was devoted to philanthropic endeavors, a complete list of which includes the oldest and finest American cultural institutions. He personally funded archaeologist Kenneth Conant’s excavations at the Romanesque Abbey of Cluny in France, supported a project to uncover the mosaics at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, and sponsored summer festivals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was a trustee of Harvard University, Brown University, President of the Byzantine Society, trustee of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, and a member of the historical societies of both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He was the first treasurer of the Mediaeval Academy of America and founder of its academic journal, Speculum, which is still published today.
Brown died of a heart attack on October 9, 1979 on his yacht, which was anchored off Annapolis, Maryland. The John Nicholas Brown Papers are conserved at the John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.