Yale University, 38 Hillhouse Ave, New Haven, CT 06520
Timothy Dwight College, 345 Temple St, New Haven, CT 06511
John Marshall Philips (January 2, 1905 - May 7, 1953) was a member of the Horace Walpole Society, elected in 1941. He was part of the Monuments Man.
He was born at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, on January 2, 1905, a son of Marshall Phillips and Isabel Smith Walter, and of Quaker stock on both sides. His father and grandfather were managers of a large farm, and from them he brought to the study of the fine arts certain Quaker-farmer qualities which contributed to his greatness in his field. His plain background gave him a sharper passion for the beautiful, but with it a shrewd and detached appraisal which enabled him with rare success to distinguish the true from the false in art.
Philips attended the Kennett Square High School and went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he majored in Latin and History and took his B.A. in 1927. After an unhappy beginning in the Law School of the University, he transferred to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where he took an M.A. in English in 1929. He had always been interested in American silver, so he accepted the opportunity to catalogue the collection of Maurice Brix. This brought him to the attention of Francis P. Garvan who in September, 1930, took him to Yale to work in the collections of silver, furniture, glass, and art which he had given to the University. Philips remained in this connection for the rest of his life, rising over a period of twenty years from Assistant Curator of Silver to Director of the University Art Gallery and Professor of the History of Art. In 1932 he offered for the first time a course on American architecture, furniture, and art from 1607 to 1860. From a first class of six this course, locally known as "Pots and Pans," grew to be one of the most famous in the college, and indeed in the country, taken by hundreds each year. Philips lived in Timothy Dwight College, loving the undergraduates and beloved by them, an ardent follower of the hockey team.
Maker: William Rouse, American, 1639–1705 Honorand: John Marshall Phillips, American, 1905–1953 Patch Box ca. 1695 Silver 11/16 × 1 15/16 in. (1.7 × 4.9 cm) John Marshall Phillips Collection, Gift of his nephews Donald and Marshall Phillips 1955.10.2a-b Geography: Made in Boston, Massachusetts Status: On view Culture: American Period: 17th century Classification: Containers - Metals Provenance: Lydia Turell Foster; Mrs. Archibald M. Howe, North Andover, Mass.; Donald and Marshall Phillips, to 1955; Yale Uuniversity Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn., 1955
The secret of John Phillips' growth in knowledge lay in the way in which he employed his summers. Beginning with a trip to Europe in 1933, he devoted every month which he could take from his teaching to the discovery of pieces of American art and the study of them and of their documentary background. Typically, he traced Tory portraits through the Public Records Office on his last trip to England. He never forgot a piece or a hallmark which he had seen, or a detail of their owners' genealogies. Perhaps no other institution man knew more than the dealers and collectors about their special fields. With that knowledge went a sound Quaker business sense which made him a terror in the auction galleries. Sometimes his nonchalant exposure of a forgery or a false attribution looked to the rest like the working of the Quaker Inner Light, but it was in fact the shrewd use of the vast collection of facts in his memory.
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.
During the war years Phillips served with the Army Intelligence Corps and with the British-American Civil Affairs Center in England. Ignoring the falling bombs, he pressed his search for bits of old American art (he had little use for the new sort), or helped his hosts with their problems, as by serving on the panel of the members of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths of the City of London which advises the Antique Plate Committee as to hallmarks and reproductions. Indeed he was only the second American ever to have been admitted to the Freedom and Livery of the Company.
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.
He was probably better known in Europe than in America, although he never concealed the fact that he regarded their art as only the interesting background of the work of the American colonials. In this country, only Trinity College gave him an honorary degree, and that an M.A.
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).
In the last year of his life he was elected to the American Antiquarian Society. He attended meetings, and was to have read a paper for them in October. He died in New York City on May 7, 1953, from overexertion, after running for a train. 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.
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