Ardelia Hall (1899-1979) is the quintessential personification of a one-woman campaign to track down looted art and restitute thousands of these missing works to their rightful owners. Her art restitution mission lasted for 16 years, from 1946 to 1962,while she served as a cultural affairs officer at the US Department of State. A trained art historian she specialized in ancient Chinese art and before the war worked at the Department of Asian Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts under whose auspices she participated in archaeological digs in China during the early 1930s. After a brief stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Ardelia Hall entered the government as a cultural officer of the US Department of State. In June 1946, she received the files of the recently-disbanded Roberts Commission, a wartime American organization that laid down the framework for American attempts to locate, recover, and return looted works of art in Europe and prevent their entry into the United States. Overnight, she became the point person on art restitution in the US government. Ardelia Hall managed to keep the issue of art restitution alive while most politicians and career government officials joined the increasingly fractious choruses of the Cold War. In retrospect, Ardelia Hall stands out as one of the few champions of the rights of Holocaust victims to reclaim their lost possessions and perhaps their only voice within the US government.
Her quest for missing works of art led her to France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and back to the United States which, by the 1950s, had once again become a thriving art market, a welcoming safe haven for art works wrongfully removed from their rightful owners at the hands of the Nazis only to be sold to and incorporated into leading American private and public collections by unwitting and unscrupulous art merchants alike.
The story of this unsung heroine has never been told, it has only been hinted at in a series of books and documentaries pertaining to the looting of Europe’s cultural heritage between 1933-1945. The story of Ardelia Hall resonates today in the wake of the depredations inflicted upon the cultural institutions of the Iraqi people. Had she been alive today, her voice would have resonated throughout the halls of the US government in protest over such devastation.
Once anointed with her new mission, Ardelia Hall’s team of art restitution experts scoured the European countryside in search of lost collections, gathered them at collecting points and ensured their safe return to the countries whence they originated. She also investigated on her own initiative dozens of leading art dealers in Europe and the United States whom she suspected of harboring stolen works of art for profit. Her quest for justice also led her to forge working partnerships with the US Army and its legal arm, the Provost Marshal’s Office, to flush out works of art that had been illegally brought back to the United States by returning servicemen and officers.
Ardelia Hall worked hand in hand with two other art restitution specialists, Rose Valland, in France, and Evelyn Tucker in Austria. Together, these three women took on the postwar governments of Western and Central Europe, the senior leadership of the Allied occupation military governments in Germany and Austria and the unrepentant representatives of the international art market.