This Day in Jewish History

1965: Son of Goldman Sachs Founder Who Devoted His Life to Art Dies

His father stymied Paul Sachs' ambition to study humanities, but the son had no aptitude for science – and a very keen eye for the arts.

Paul Joseph Sachs, date unknown
Wikimedia Commons

On February 18, 1965, Paul Sachs – scion of the founding fathers of the investment bank Goldman Sachs; mentor and groomer of the first generation of professional American art curators; and one of the “Monuments Men” who were entrusted during World War II with protecting art treasures both in the U.S. and in an embattled Europe – died, at age 86.

Paul Joseph Sachs was born on November 24, 1878, in New York. His mother, Louisa Goldman, was the daughter of Marcus Goldman, the German-born immigrant who founded what became Goldman Sachs. His junior partner in that endeavor was his son-in-law Samuel Sachs, who also happened to be Paul’s father. Samuel too had come to the U.S. from Germany in the mid-19th century.

Paul grew up in New York, and, like the children of other German-Jewish aristocrats, attended the Julius Sachs Collegiate Institute, founded and run by his mother’s brother.

Upon graduation, it was assumed that Paul would attend Harvard, but there was a problem: He failed the subjects of Greek, Latin, math and science in the university’s entrance exams.

A man of the arts

Humiliated, Paul spent the next year working with a tutor for a second shot at the tests, studying in front of a poster with the words, “I must, I will, I can.” This time, he was accepted, and in 1896, he arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to begin college.

At Harvard, Sachs focused on modern languages, philosophy and fine arts. He also began collecting prints and drawings, a realm he explored together with his classmate Edward Waldo Forbes.

Paul made it known that he was interested in an academic career in the humanities – and his father made it known that if Paul pursued that line of work, he would get no financial assistance from the family to supplement the lecturer’s annual salary of $750.

After graduation, in 1900, therefore, Paul Sachs joined the family bank, becoming a partner in 1904. The work never really appealed to him, though, and when Forbes, who had in 1909 become director of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, offered him a job as assistant curator, in 1914, he said yes. Sachs spent the summer looking at art in Italy, and moved to Cambridge to begin his new career.

Unqualified, but very good

Years later, after Sachs had done so much to turn the position of art curator into a serious profession, with standards of its own, Forbes, in his memoirs, noted that, “these days,” someone like his friend “wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell” of being offered a job as curator at the Fogg.

For the next 40 years -- with a break during World War I, when, who was too short to be accepted for military service, worked for the American Red Cross in Paris – Sachs worked at the museum and taught in the art department at Harvard. By far, his most acclaimed course was “Fine Arts 15A: Museum Work and Museum Problems,” out of which emerged scores of future curators and administrators of American museums.

Probably Sachs’ most accomplished student was Alfred H. Barr, who, on his mentor’s recommendation, was hired to be the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, and remained at the museum until 1968. Sachs also gave the museum its first piece of art, a drawing by George Grosz.

Sachs also contributed some 2,900 pieces of art from his own collections to the Fogg Museum. 

As the head of the personnel committee of American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, known informally as the Monuments Men, Sachs recommended many of the body’s nearly 400 experts. They  took on the responsibility, even before the U.S. entered World War II, of safeguarding the country’s art treasures at home, and also of trying to protect art and architecture in Europe from destruction. After the war, they tracked down millions of cultural items that had disappeared or been looted during the war.

Paul J. Sachs retired from his position as associate director of the Fogg Art Museum in 1945, and three years later, from his teaching position. He died in the library of his Cambridge home in 1965, surrounded by his books and prints.