“I was in the Army for three years, and I didn’t fire a shot at anybody and nobody fired a shot at me. That’s the definition of a good war,” the white-haired Taper, sharp at 89, says with a smile. But he did his part to bring forth light, in the form of recovered art, from the darkness of the war.
Born in London and educated at UC Berkeley, Taper was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in intelligence and infantry units before being sent back to Berkeley to learn Chinese in preparation for work as a liaison officer assigned to Chaing Kai-Shek’s army in China. But at the last minute, the entire class was sent to Germany, where the war was over.
“It was the Army. Why do you think they invented words like ‘snafu’?” laughs Taper, who was assigned to Patton’s Third Army, then sent to Munich to write intelligence reports. Lunching outdoors one day at an officers’ club, he fell into conversation with a dashing chap named Walter Horn, an Aryan German who abhorred Hitler and left, became a professor of medieval history at UC Berkeley and saw combat action during the war.
“He started telling me marvelous, fascinating stories about what it was like in his job to search for lost and stolen art,” recalls Taper, who had begun contributing to the New Yorker and the Nation while serving in occupied Germany. Horn was desperate to go home, but couldn’t until he found a successor for his art-investigating job. “When he met me he found his successor,” says Taper, who told Horn he wasn’t an art historian and probably wasn’t qualified. Horn said the Monuments section was “lousy with art historians,” but what was needed was somebody who knew how to ask questions. As a budding journalist, Taper fit the bill.
As a further inducement, Horn told him he would have the use of a white BMW roadster, wouldn’t have to wear a uniform, could travel freely without orders and would meet women. “And he said if nothing else, there’s all this art you can look at,” recalls Taper, quick to point out that he got a brown Audi sedan, not the promised BMW. For about six weeks, Taper was in charge of the Army’s art-collecting center at Wiesbaden, which was filled with not only looted art but works from various German civic collections.
“They had fantastic stuff there,” Taper says. “In the office, across the whole back wall, was Watteau’s ‘Embarkation for Cythera,’ and a wonderful Degas, where you look up through the orchestra pit, through the beards of the musicians, at these elegant dancers. It was from the Frankfurt Museum.” As Taper says in the documentary, “Just that office alone was worth the price of admission to World War II.” Outside the door stood a 5,000-year-old stone Nefertiti, which also stopped Taper in his tracks. “I couldn’t just brush by. I had to stop and commune with her.”
Building on the work of previous Monument Men, such as his friend Stewart Leonard, a bomb diffuser who single-handedly removed 22 mines from the Chartres Cathedral and later opened crates containing priceless books and Dürer drawings, Taper tracked down mostly mid-level missing artworks, by painters like the 16th century Dutch artist Mierevelt and his Flemish contemporary Teniers, as well church statuary and other looted objects.
“Probably the best artwork I helped recover was from Göring’s train,” Taper says, abandoned on a rail siding not far from Neuschwanstein Castle, where Allied troops found a huge cache of stolen art. The locals had heard there was schnapps on board, Taper says, and after stealing the schnapps, they took the rest of the stuff, which included late-Gothic wood statutes and a 15th century School of Rogier van der Weyden painting. “Not bad,” says Taper, who had the bright idea of tapping the de-Nazifed German police to help him find stolen goods.