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Utah professor was a real-life ‘Monuments Man’
Japanese art » Like the characters in upcoming film, Lennox Tierney found, preserved thousands of artworks after World War II.

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"He’s preaching the doctrine," said Tierney. "It’s the only sculptural work that makes sound visible."

It was housed in the Rokuharamitsuji Temple outside of Kyoto that had been damaged in the war, but before the destruction, people hid it away in a safe place. It was brought out again during Tierney’s administration.

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It was one of thousands of pieces he preserved, returning the art to its owners when he could find them and bringing the pieces to the national museum when he couldn’t.

Other works, though, were lost forever in the war. In Toyko, Tierney met a tea master who had one of the country’s largest collections of netsuke — tiny, intricate sculptures Japanese men used to store and carry vitamins and other small items.

"We made a mistake in the West. We thought all sculpture came out of the Italian renaissance — big," he said. "I discovered the great sculptures of Japan were these little netsuke."

Along with the netsuke, the tea master had also amassed a collection of paintings and other sculptures. When "the war clouds began to gather," Tierney said, the man picked an out-of-the-way farmhouse to stash his art away from the presumable target of Tokyo.

But the spot turned out to be in the center of the destruction.

"It was on the path into Nagoya," Tierney said. "His total collection was destroyed. The greatest collection in Japan."

Tierney’s tour of duty in Japan ended in 1952, and he was sent to Germany, where he tracked down Picassos scattered by Nazis. His reception from the locals, though, wasn’t nearly as warm.

"I never felt unsafe in Japan," he said, but he didn’t go walking alone during his three years in Germany. "A lot of Germans were bitter about the war and didn’t accept [defeat.]"

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And Tierney never gave up on Catherine. She finally found time for him, and the couple wed, returned to California and had a son together. Shortly after his return, he was approached by a "tall blond man" after a lecture he gave on Japanese culture who turned out to be the dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah.

Tierney has called Salt Lake City home for 40 years, visiting Japan with Catherine every seven years until her death from Alzheimer’s disease. In 2007, the Japanese government awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun.

As a young man helping to rebuild the country, "I was seeing the works of art I had studied as great works ... in many respects, I felt I’d died and gone to heaven," he said. "It was a very amazing kind of experience."


Twitter: @lwhitehurst

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