British Army starts recruiting for revived Monuments Men unit to protect art and archaeology in war

Daily Telegraph 11 October 2018
By Nick Squires, Rome

A former Gulf War tank commander is recruiting experts to form a specialist unit that will protect cultural heritage in war zones, similar to the role carried out by the famed Monuments Men who saved artistic treasures from the Nazis during the Second World War.

Lt Colonel Tim Purbrick, who took part in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as a 26-year-old subaltern, has just taken up command of the newly-created Cultural Property Protection Unit.

So far he is commander of one soldier – himself – but has identified a number of specialists, including an Arabic-speaking archeologist and an underwater archeologist, and will start interviewing potential recruits next week.

The new unit will draw on members of the Army, Navy, RAF and Royal Marines. Civilians who want to join will have to enlist in the Army Reserves.

Once up and running, the 15-strong unit will be sent into war zones where art and archeological sites are at risk from fighting.

The creation of the unit is a response, in part, to the desecration of ancient sites such as Palmyra and Nimrud in Syria and Iraq by Islamic State.

“It’s a revival of the Monuments Men, which was disbanded at the end of the Second World War,” Lt Col Purbrick, 54, of the Royal Lancers, said.

“We’re looking for experts in the fields of art, archeology and art crime investigation.”

The British team also draws inspiration from the Art Looting Investigation Unit, set up in 1944 by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, to try to recover paintings and artifacts plundered by the Germans.

The CPPU will be tasked with protecting art and archeology, investigating looting, bringing smuggling gangs to justice and informing allied forces about the location of cultural heritage sites.


“The idea will be to identify sites so that we don’t drop bombs on them or park tanks on top of them,” said Lt Col Purbrick, who left the regular army after 10 years to become a reservist.

The unit will be a direct descendant of the Anglo-American outfit made famous by the 2014 film The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Hugh Bonneville.

The formation of the successor unit is also a response to Britain’s decision, last year, to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention on protecting cultural property during military conflict.

At the time of the ratification, John Glen, the minister for arts, heritage and tourism, said that the world had “watched with dismay and horror in recent years the wanton destruction of priceless historic artifacts and sites in war.”

The new British unit is seeking advice from similar organisations in other countries, including a specialist cultural heritage protection unit of the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police force, which is a world leader in recovering art and artifacts.

Experts from the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army, based in Fort Drum, New York State, have also been consulted.

The British team will be based in Hermitage, near Newbury, Berks, at the headquarters of the 77th Brigade, which draws its name from the Chindits, the British unit that fought the Japanese in Burma.

Lt Col Purbrick was speaking at the British embassy in Rome, where two Etruscan artifacts were officially handed back to Italy after being recovered by the Metropolitan Police.

One was a delicate bronze figurine of a deity while the other was a terracotta drinking vessel in the shape of a winged sphynx, in which liquid poured out of one of the creature’s breasts.

The bronze statue was stolen in 1988 from an archeological museum in Siena, Tuscany. It was recently offered for sale online by a British dealer but was identified as being stolen and seized by the police. The online auction guide price for the object was £3,000.

The terracotta vessel, worth around £10,000, was also put up for sale at auction but identified by Sotherby’s as having been stolen by Giacomo Medici, a notorious Italian antiquities smuggler who was jailed in 2005 and fined €10 million for dealing in stolen artifacts.

“Ninety per cent of everything he dealt with was looted,” said Det Sgt Rob Upham from the Metropolitan Police’s Arts and Antiques Unit. “Buyers often keep these items for long periods of time and it is only decades later that they emerge on the market.”
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