True story behind 'The Monuments Men' and Nazi art looting

San Francisco Chronicle 2 February 2014
By David D'Arcy

Robert Edsel, author of the book on which "The Monuments Men" is based, visits the set during filming. Photo: Claudette Barius, Columbia Pictures

"The Monuments Men" promises to take the story of the recovery of Nazi-looted art to the global audience that watches films starring George Clooney, who directed and co-wrote the script.

At the origin of Clooney's project is the study of the same title by one of the film's producers, Robert Edsel, 57, a former Texas oilman for whom the rescue and rescuers of pillaged art became a passion.

The men (and women) in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program "were the first detectives on the scene for this crime," Edsel said. "They didn't see themselves that way at the time, and soldiers weren't treating the scenes as crime scenes. There was a bigger issue of the war and the loss of 65 million lives."

No precise count

There's no precise count of the works of art seized by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945, and the frequently cited figure of 6 million objects does not include art and architecture that the Germans deliberately destroyed, especially on the Eastern Front. At the end of the war and after the Nazi surrender, about 5 million objects were returned to their countries and owners, thanks in part to the monuments program. Estimates of unrecovered objects range from hundreds of thousands to more than a million - " 'a lot' is the answer," Edsel said - and works turn up throughout the world every year.

The most notable stash of art amassed during the Nazi era was made public in November, in the Munich apartment of the son of an art dealer who was active during that time. More than 1,200 works found there - which led to a media frenzy - are under investigation.

"Restitutions that are taking place to this day, in many instances - not all - are the continued legacy of the Monuments Men," Edsel said.

Clooney's film, co-written with Grant Heslov (who co-wrote "Good Night, and Good Luck" with Clooney and co-produced "Argo" with him), changes the names of the Monuments Men. It's no secret, however, that Matt Damon plays a character who struggles with the French language based on James Rorimer, later a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and that Bob Balaban is a clumsy private based on Lincoln Kirstein, a renaissance man of American culture. Cate Blanchett plays the bookish and peevish French curator Claire Simone, based on Rose Valland, a crucial tracker of Nazi looting.

Basic training

The story follows the middle-aged men through comically arduous basic training and, for some moments, onto the battlefield, as they fight the Germans and struggle with their own commanders to keep cultural treasures out of the line of fire.

With John Goodman, Bill Murray, Jean Dujardin in the cast, "The Monuments Men" was shot in Germany, where a blitz of promotion precedes its premiere Thursday at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Edsel was drawn to cultural preservation when he was living in Italy, after he had played tennis professionally and later operated a business in oil and gas drilling. While studying art and architecture in Florence, he watched the 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum on television.

Well-deserved scorn

"There was scorn for America - well deserved," he recalled.

Edsel's attention turned to World War II, which had ravaged Europe and its cultural treasures.

"I wondered how, in the face of the most destructive conflict in history - so many cities were destroyed, 65 million people killed - I wondered how so many cultural objects survived and who were the people that saved them," he said.

With a team of researchers, Edsel assembled "Rescuing Da Vinci," a photographic volume on the destruction and recovery of art in Italy. Publishers were less enthusiastic about the subject than he was.

"The first thing they said was that no one would care about the story," he said. "The second thing they said was that it's already been done. Both of those things were wrong."


After self-publishing "Rescuing Da Vinci" in 2006, Edsel wrote "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" (2009) and "Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures From the Nazis" (2013).

Since 2007, Edsel has been involved in putting the story of Nazi art looting on film. He co-produced the documentary "The Rape of Europa," based on Lynn Nicholas' book on Nazi art crimes and directed by Bay Area filmmakers Richard Berge, Bonnie Cohen and Nicole Newnham.

Edsel also published a catalog of the art collection acquired by Nazi leader Hermann Goering, edited by a researcher at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the translation from French of a biography of Rose Valland, the curator who catalogued Nazi purchases of looted art at the Jeu de Paume Museum in occupied Paris, where Goering was also a shopper. He is the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.

"My objective in writing the books was to raise worldwide awareness, to honor these guys, and put their legacy to use so that we don't go back into situations like Iraq in the aftermath of the looting," Edsel said.

Given the huge audience that a movie released by a major studio can rally, "the film can provide a Cliff Notes telling of this important epic story of World War II that people don't know anything about," Edsel said.

"It's impossible to tell all that story comprehensively in two hours, but I think they can get an understanding of what Hitler's intent was, with his (planned) Linz Museum and how art was used, and the role of these men and women - who were middle-aged museum curators and artists themselves - who volunteered for service to save all these things."

Toll-free number

Edsel turned his focus to the near future: "We're now poised to see a period of five to 10 years when what's out there is going to surface. We're going to lose the rest of that generation, whether they were soldiers or displaced persons. Everything they own is going to have a new owner."

His solution isn't another book or film, but a toll-free number for reporting looted or displaced art set up by the Monuments Men Foundation: (866) 994-4278.

"One thing that Munich brought to everybody's mind is how many things are missing. They're in the hands of 80-year-olds and the kids of 80-year-olds," he said. "No one's ever asked the public for their help, to finish the Monuments Men's mission." {sbox}

Monuments Men (PG-13) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

To see a trailer, go to

David D'Arcy is a freelance writer. E-mail:
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