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'Monuments Men's' WWII-era story keeps adding chapters

1970
1945
Omaha World Herald 5 February 2014
By Bob Fischbach

article photo

Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett are two of the stars of the new based-on-a-true-story movie “The Monuments Men,” co-written, directed by and starring George Clooney

The Monuments Men

Director: George Clooney
Stars: Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban
Rating: PG-13 for smoking, images of war violence
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

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For Owen Pell, the history of “The Monuments Men” came alive when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

That's when the New York City lawyer at White & Case began advising clients on potential claims to art treasures stolen by the Nazis in World War II. One of his law partners came from a Jewish family whose property had been looted. When one of the family's artworks showed up in the United States, Pell handled the case.

“We won, but it took a very long time, despite remarkable proof of ownership,” Pell said.

This weekend marks the opening of a movie George Clooney directed, co-wrote and stars in that retells the story of “The Monuments Men,” a special military unit led by museum directors, curators and art historians. They risked their lives in the closing stages of World War II to rescue stolen artworks before the Nazis could execute plans to destroy the evidence.

The movie, based on Robert Edsel's best-selling book of the same name, also stars Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett.

For Pell, the issue isn't ancient history.

The discovery last November of 1,400 disputed artworks in a tiny Munich apartment brought headlines yet again. The apartment was owned by the Gurlitt family, favored by the Nazis as “art dealers.” Soon after, Pell and former State Department special envoy J.D. Bindenagel wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal about the looting and about how little the German government has done since 1945 to return looted items — now in the hands of German agencies and museums — to their rightful owners.

Pell knew Ken Lindsay, one of the members of the Monuments Men unit. As a student, Pell audited Lindsay's art history lectures at Binghamton (N.Y.) University. Later, Pell reconnected with Lindsay, who provided help with World War II litigation. Pell knew current legal issues. Lindsay knew the history. Together they did panel discussions on art issues related to the Nazis.

In a recent phone interview, Pell gave an overview of how the Nazis looted 20 million art objects, breaking them down into three categories.

As they occupied Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and France, they took state property: historic tapestries from Polish castles, priceless masterpieces from the Louvre. They systematically picked through entire collections from museums, libraries and historical archives.

They also looted religious property: iconography from Russia and Ukraine, the renowned Ghent Altarpiece, Michelangelo's “Madonna of Bruges” sculpture of Mary with the infant Jesus, and many more.

And they took private property. Marching into Paris, Pell said, the Nazis had a list of 50 prominent Jewish families that collected or dealt in fine art. The German military rounded up family members or their household staff and put a gun to their heads to learn where the art was hidden.

“The Rosenberg family in Paris is a prime example,” Pell said. “They had an extensive collection of Impressionist works hidden in a mine and a bank vault. The Germans got 950 works from that family alone.”

Family heirlooms were not overlooked: furniture, china, flatware, and gold and silver passed down by families through generations. A famous telegram from one approved Nazi dealer tells Hitler that 70 railcars of loot from France will be delivered as a birthday present in 1943.

Pell said redistribution of some loot to Germany's middle and lower classes helped buy their loyalty to the Nazis.

“The corruption was astounding,” he said. “They liquidated whole businesses, and German industrialists bought them up cheap. It was a massive feeding frenzy, and art was part of that frenzy.”

An entire book, “Hitler's Beneficiaries” by Götz Aly, details how the Germans redistributed their ill-gotten loot. The better the art, the higher up the food chain it landed, Pell said.

“Hitler was planning a Führer museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria,” Pell said. “He wanted a collection of Aryan art — old masters, northern European. His people would cherry-pick what they wanted.”

Herman Göring, founder of the Gestapo and the second-most-powerful man in Nazi Germany, was an art collector even before the war. His 6,000 looted works are cataloged in “Beyond the Dreams of Avarice,” a book by Nancy Yeide.

Modern art such as the Impressionists, deemed degenerate by the Nazis, was nonetheless used to barter for other works. It was just another commodity, Pell said.

German laws made it impossible for Jews to have a profession or find work, Pell said. But they could not take property with them if they left the country. Many art pieces were sold at bargain prices to pay taxes. Many more were simply confiscated.

Only seven buyers were licensed by the Nazis to purchase art from Jews, Pell said. Hildebrand Gurlitt, whose son held the recent trove found in Munich, was one of the seven.

“There's lots of looted art still out there, no question,” Pell said.

Der Spiegel, a German magazine, reported a year ago that 15,000 to 20,000 looted art pieces hang in private areas of German government offices, Pell said. He said many more pieces sit in museum basements, not on display — and not being returned to rightful owners.

“The deck is stacked against those who lost property in the Holocaust,” Pell said. “Even if you have proof of ownership, it's unbelievably difficult to find a given piece of art. It's worse than finding a needle in a haystack.”

He said he hopes the movie raises people's consciousness of what happened and what needs to happen for justice to be served.

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