John Marshall Phillips (1905-1953)
Museum director and connoisseur of American silver, John Marshall Phillips was born in 1905. He received two degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, including an A.B. in 1927 and an M.A. in English in 1929. In 1930 he completed a catalogue of collector Maurice Brix’s silver collection. Those of other prominent collectors soon followed. He was then hired by Francis Garvan, who soon began donating his extensive collection of decorative arts to the Yale University Art Gallery. Phillips followed the collection to Yale as its official curator, and was soon placed in charge of the Brady Garvan Collection, the finest collection of American silver in the country. In 1932 he joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor of art history. His popular class on decorative arts, affectionately nicknamed “Pots and Pans,” was taken by future U.S. President George H. W. Bush. Phillips was named acting director of the Gallery in 1941.
Phillips enlisted in the U.S. Army in November 1942 and began service with U.S. Army Counterintelligence in Boston. In 1944 he was transferred to the MFAA and assigned to SHAEF headquarters in London. Due to his extensive experience in intelligence, he was appointed to the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).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 trails.
While serving with the ALIU, Phillips traveled to the Netherlands to investigate art belonging to Dutch collectors that had been stolen by the Nazis. He later examined the collection of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, including his prized Vermeer, Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery. But upon close inspection, Phillips became convinced the painting was a forgery. In time, he participated in the pre-trial interrogation of the painting’s true artist, the forger Hans van Meegeren.
Phillips returned to the United States and became Director of the Yale University Art Gallery in 1948. In addition to his duties as Director, he established a reputation as an expert in historic and early American silver. He published several books on the subject, including Early Connecticut Silver 1700-1830 (1935), Masterpieces of New England Silver 1650-1800 (1939), and American Silver (1949).
John Phillips died suddenly in 1953. He was succeeded as Director by fellow Monuments Man, Lamont Moore. In honor of their friend and colleague, the Board of Trustees at Yale Art Gallery established The John Marshall Phillips Fellowship in American Art.