S. Lane Faison, Jr. (1907-2006)
A highly respected professor and art historian, Samson Lane Faison, Jr. was inspired to study medieval art during a visit to Chartres Cathedral at the young age of sixteen. He attended Williams College in Massachusetts, where he studied under Karl E. Weston, professor of art and first director of the Williams College Art Museum. After earning his Bachelor of Arts in 1929, he earned a Master of Arts from Harvard in 1930 and a Master of Fine Arts from Princeton in 1932. He worked briefly as an assistant professor of art at Yale University before returning to Williams College as full professor in 1936. In 1940, he succeeded his mentor, Weston, as chair of the art department.
In December 1942, Faison enlisted in the Navy and served as a Naval Flight Recognition Instructor and Training Officer. In April 1945 he was chosen to join the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was assigned to the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU). Formed in 1944, the ALIU acted as the intelligence component to the MFAA. Its two-fold mission was to uncover information to be used in the restitution of looted art and to amass evidence for the prosecution of Nazi leaders at the postwar Nuremberg trials. Also assigned to the unit were Monuments Men Lt. James S. Plaut and Lt. Theodore Rousseau, Jr. Each of these three officers was tasked with the in-depth investigation of one of the three most important Nazi looting programs: the activities of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in France (Lt. Plaut), the collection of Hermann Göring (Lt. Rousseau), and the collection of Adolf Hitler intended for his massive Führermuseum in Linz, Austria (Faison).
Faison arrived at Alt Aussee, Austria in June 1945. The ALIU established an interrogation center near the Alt Aussee salt mine, where the Nazis had hidden looted treasures including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. From June 1945 until the spring of 1946, Faison, Plaut, and Rousseau detained and interrogated hundreds of Nazi officials and collaborators on the whereabouts of looted works of art. The resulting intelligence was supplied to the MFAA and greatly expedited the restitution process for millions of looted works of art and cultural objects.
In his final report to the OSS, Faison advocated for the prosecution of Nazi art looters before the Nuremberg tribunal. He wrote that, "Looting always accompanies war; but Nazi looting, and especially Nazi art looting, was different. It was officially planned and expertly carried out. Looted art gave tone to an otherwise bare New Order.”
In early 1946 Faison returned to his post as professor at Williams College and became Director of the Williams College Museum of Art in 1948. However, his work with the MFAA was not yet complete. In 1950, the U.S. State Department sent Faison to Germany as Director of the Munich Central Collecting Point. The U.S. Government had long been anxious to extricate itself from the delicate process of international restitutions and wanted to transfer responsibility to the Germans. Faison arrived in Munich in December 1950, where restitution efforts were still underway. While the most important works of art had already left the collecting point, much still remained. Faison later remarked that “one of the saddest problems was acres of furniture, just went on and on, piled up to the ceiling” taken from Jewish homes, which were considerably more difficult to positively identify than a painting or sculpture. During the next year, Faison worked tirelessly with foreign representatives to send everything home in the most favorable manner possible. For his efforts, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French Government in 1952.
Restitution activities at the Munich Central Collecting Point ceased in 1951, and Faison once again returned home to Williams College. Until his retirement in 1976 as a beloved professor emeritus, he served as department chair and director of the university’s art museum. His former students became influential leaders of the country’s greatest cultural institutions including Kirk T. Varnedoe (Museum of Modern Art, New York), Thomas Krens (the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation), Earl A. Powell III (the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and Jack Lane (Dallas Museum of Art).
Lane Faison died in 2006 at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Photo courtesy of Williams Magazine.