Captain, U.S. Army, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archive (MFAA) Sectio
One of the world’s foremost authorities on European tapestries, Edith Appleton Standen was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on February 21, 1905. The daughter of a British Army officer, she grew up in Ireland and England before earning a degree in English from Somerville College, Oxford University, in 1926. In 1928 she immigrated to Boston to work at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which was founded by her uncle, William Sumner Appleton. Standen also volunteered at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum organizing its photograph collection. There, she quickly caught the attention of Paul J. Sachs, future member of the Roberts Commission. Sachs invited her to participate in his legendary Museum Administration course, the alumni of which included not only many future Monuments Men, but future leaders of the greatest American art museums. In addition to her studies at the Fogg, Standen served as Secretary of the famed collection of Joseph E. Widener at Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania from 1929 until Widener donated his collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1942.
In April 1943, just one year after becoming an American citizen, Standen enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and was first stationed in Ohio with the U.S. Army Air Force (USAAF). Because of her experience handling art objects, she was referred to Monuments Man Lt. Col. Mason Hammond, fellow USAAF officer and head of the MFAA branch of the United States Group Control Council (USGCC). On June 4, 1945 she joined the branch as a Fine Arts Specialist Officer. One of her first assignments included the inspection of art objects at the Reichsbank in Frankfurt. By September 1945, she was transferred to the headquarters of the G-5 (Civil Affairs) Division of the European Theater of Operations in Höchst, Germany.
Standen was the only woman of thirty-two MFA&A officers to sign the Wiesbaden Manifesto on November 7, 1945. Called “the only act of protest by officers against their orders in the Second World War,” it denounced the United States’ decision to transfer 202 paintings from the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. for safe-keeping. However, her involvement in the controversy did not end with a signature. Standen also distributed copies of the Manifesto to various offices with a signed cover letter nearly a month after the paintings had left Wiesbaden.
From March 1946 to August 1947, Standen served as temporary Officer-in-Charge of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. As the successor of Monuments Man Capt. Walter I. Farmer, she oversaw the sorting, cataloguing, and eventual restitution of thousands of works of art and other cultural objects found within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forces, Austria (USFA). Created to be the Central Collecting Point for German-owned works of art, the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point included the vast collections of sixteen Berlin State Museums, along with seventeen other prominent German collections. The only collections not of German ownership were the many treasures looted from Polish churches and a chest containing the Hungarian State Coronation Regalia. The treasure room prepared for these foreign artifacts reportedly contained, in the words of Monuments Man Capt. James J. Rorimer, “more gold and jewels…than any room since the time of Montezuma.” She also worked closely with her friend Capt. Rose Valland, the former spy at the Jeu de Paume during Hermann Goering’s art looting activities, who subsequently became a restitution officer for France.
Standen returned to the United States in September 1947 and resumed her promising career as a museum curator. After briefly participating in a UNESCO project at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, she worked as a curator in the textiles department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for over twenty years. From 1949 until her retirement in 1970, she organized numerous exhibitions and lectured on everything from silks to fans from the Renaissance onward. She remained at the Metropolitan as a consultant for eighteen years following her retirement, during which time she could be found early each morning conducting research in the museum’s Watson Library.
Edith Standen is the only female member of the MFAA to have earned the Bronze Star. In addition to over fifty scholarly articles, she published European Post-Medieval Tapestries and Related Hangings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1985), a two-volume catalogue of the Metropolitan’s collection of European tapestries. In September 1985, in honor of her eightieth birthday, her colleagues held a symposium during the general assembly of the Centre International d’Etudes des Textiles Anciens at the Deutsches Textilmuseum in Krefeld, Germany. In 1988 she was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Women’s Caucus for Art. Today, her papers are housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Edith Standen died in New York City on July 19, 1998.