The art historian and the spy: the diverging and convering paths of the Heckscher brothers

Henry Hecksher, the CIA officer at the center of this project, and his brother William S. Heckscher took somewhat different paths out of Germany, and their professional lives took very different courses. They even spelled their last names differently. And yet they always seemed to end up in the same place: Princeton, New Jersey.

A New York Times obituary for William provides a brief sketch of a life that was much more public than that of his spy brother, and whose impact in his field is far more celebrated, at least in the light of day.

William was born in Hamburg in 1904, making him Henry’s older brother. In Germany, he studied at the University of Hamburg under the art historian Erwin Panofsky, earning a doctorate in art history in 1935, two years after Hitler took power.

The Heckscher brothers were born in Hamburg, shown in a postcard in 1910. Photo: pellethepoet/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A friend and fellow academic, George Mason University humanities professor Clarence J. Robinson, told the Times that in following Panofsky, William became ”a disciple of the Warburg School, whose aim it was to widen the concept of a style-oriented art-historical discourse by placing the study of art in a cultural context.”

William left Germany in 1936 and became a visiting scholar for a year at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where Panovsky was already a member of faculty. Panovsky would live and work in Princeton until he died in 1968, making him certainly a long-term presence in William’s life, according to an institute newsletter.

But then William ended up in Britain, and after World War II broke out he was detained as an “enemy alien”. That led him to a detention camp in Canada, where his work to help fellow internees pass entrance exams for Canadian universities earned him an honorary degree from McGill University in Montreal.

After the war, he taught in universities in the US and the Netherlands before becoming faculty at Duke University. There he was chairman of the art department from 1966 to 1969, before directing the Museum of Art there while still serving as a professor.

William retired in 1974.

At some point after that, he was back in Princeton, where he served as a consultant to the Princeton University library. He died in his home in the New Jersey city on November 27, 1999.

Here’s how the Times described his legacy as an art historian.

Professor Heckscher’s wide-ranging scholarship included Rembrandt and ancient Rome. He was one of nine influential foreign-born art historians, most of them refugees from the Nazi Reich, who, as Art Journal put it, ”made ‘art history’ and ‘Germanic’ interchangeable terms in universities throughout the United States and struggled to reconcile the new culture with the old.”

At the time of his death, William was survivied by his wife, Roxanne, daughters Diana Mitchell, Katherine Heckscher and Charlotte Hecksher. It’s time to start reaching out to his family members.


Pace, Eric, “William S. Heckscher, Historian Of Art and Museum Director, 94”, New York Times, February 7, 2000,

“Times at the Institute”, Institute for Advanced Studies, accessed on May 1, 2021,

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