Nazi-looted art is still being sought and recovered more than 70 years after the real men and women of the Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, known as the “Monuments Men,” set out to protect European art from Nazi plundering in World War II. The recent retrieval of 1,400 art objects from a Munich apartment drew worldwide attention. The new film, The Monuments Men, depicts the initial effort and brings to light the continuing work to find countless paintings and other works of art still missing. It is no coincidence that the film premiere outside the U.S. was at the Berlin International Film Festival, generating more awareness of the issue.
The Monuments Men is a fictionalized telling of the Allied effort to protect cultural properties and artworks during World War II. The group operated under General Dwight D. Eisenhower on battle preparations to protect key monuments and churches from bombs and to hunt for art repositories hidden by the Nazis. The actual Monuments Men team consisted of more than 300 museum directors, art historians and curators, many middle-aged, who volunteered for the effort.
The new film, directed by George Clooney, features an all-star cast playing characters based on real members of the Allied unit. Clooney plays the group leader, an art historian called Frank Stokes in the film but based on George Stout from Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Matt Damon portrays a character based on James Rorimer, who later became director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bob Balaban’s character is a theatrical director tailored after Lincoln Kirstein, a co-founder of the New York City Ballet. Cate Blanchett plays a Parisian curator named Claire Simone, who is based on Rose Valland, Lourve museum curator and a crucial tracker of art stowed away in mines by the Nazis. The cast also includes John Goodman, Hugh Bonneville, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin.
The movie arose from The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, a book published in 2009. The author, Robert Edsel, became interested in cultural preservation while living in Florence studying art and architecture. His curiosity on how so many cultural objects survived a war that ravaged many cities in Europe led to a new career. He self-published a photographic volume, Rescuing Da Vinci, on recovery of Italian art before writing about the Monuments Men. He has since published a catalog on the art acquired by Nazi leader Hermann Goering and his most recent work Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures From the Nazis.
Even though World War II ended nearly 70 years ago, the fight to find stolen artifacts continues. The whereabouts and hiding places of other pieces are being guarded by an aging generation. For example, the trove found in Munich was in the apartment of an 80-year-old recluse. The Monuments Men film brings the continuing effort by people actively looking for them to light in the hopes of recovering more before those with the knowledge die.
No exact count exists of the art seized by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945. They looted millions of items from museums and private collections throughout Europe. Some estimates put the unrecovered objects total in the millions. They are believed to be in homes, bank vaults or hidden deep in underground chambers and mines. One famous discovery was made in a salt mine one month before the war ended. Eisenhower, along with General Omar Bradley and General George Patton, actually went into the mine that April to look at the estimated 400 works of art.
The Monuments Men effort helped return of approximately 5 million stolen objects to their owners. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. has three pieces Portrait of a Young Man by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Work Table by Pierre Bonnard and On the Jetty by Eugene Boudin on display that were recovered by the group, returned to owners and later acquired by the museum. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is developed a special gallery to honor the Monuments Men. Clooney’s film honors their memory too and brings to light the continuing effort to finish what the Monuments Men (and Women) started.
By Dyanne Weiss