The story of Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men (the movie based on the book is in theaters on February 7) is almost as storied as the subjects of his book – men who saved millions of paintings from Nazi Germany during World War II. Edsel played nationally ranked college tennis before founding Gemini Exploration, a pioneer in the now booming field of horizontal drilling for oil and gas. In 1995, at age 39, Edsel sold the company for $37 million and moved to Europe. In Florence, Italy, Edsel dove into his lifelong interests in history and art with the same intensity he brought to sports and business, hiring local professors for personal tours and reading "an average of 10 books a week," he says. He became intrigued with how so much of Europe's cultural heritage had survived the violence and depredations of WWII. Looting has always been a part of war, but the Nazis took it to an industrial scale, plundering millions of paintings, sculptures, and other priceless items from homes, museums, and galleries across the Continent. Researching the Monuments Men soon became Edsel's full-time obsession. The story was exciting — amateurs being strafed by fighter planes in search of lost Leonardos — but it also resonated personally. We talked to Edsel about how the book came together.
Have you had any academic training as historian or writer?
"I wasn't trained as writer, or as a historian. I'm a guy that knows how to get stuff done, a person who follows his passions. I can absorb a lot of information in fairly short periods of time if it's something I'm passionate about. I ask a lot of questions, a lot of dumb questions at the beginning. That's how I learn."
How did you get interested in the Monuments Men?
"When I was younger and my parents would travel, they gave us a good introduction to the world. When I played tennis traveling, I recall when I had downtime I'd go to churches and museums. I didn't know what I was looking at; I just thought it was pretty. It's a dividend of getting older: You learn how you learn best. For me, it's not in a classroom, it's one on one, being pushed by teachers. I was 39 years old and at a stage where the next logical, rational [thing] was to have a public company, and a bunch of people said you'll make more money. I didn't get into any of these things out of money, I got into them because I was interested." The monuments officers, just a handful of them, they were staying in Europe from 1945 all the way to 1951. By the time they returned home, they'd overseen the return of almost 5 million cultural objects, many stolen . . . It's a staggering achievement what they accomplished, but the Army wanted out of that business. It didn't intend to be in that business. The discovery of that degree of theft was a surprise to everybody."
How many of the Monuments Men were still alive when you started your research, and how many are alive now?
"Seventeen were alive when I began working on it 20 years ago. I interviewed all 17, including two women, 15 men. Now there are four men, all American, one British woman. The youngest is 87, the oldest is 96. We've lost 12 on my watch."
Did you identify with any of the characters in particular? What was there about the story that grabbed you personally?
"Well, their whole journey. You have a bunch of guys, men and women, who have established careers as museum curators, directors, art historians, artists themselves. Their average age was 40, middle-aged, most of them had families, some had kids, and they have life made, by any definition, and every reason in the world not to make a midlife change and go place their life at risk and go into combat . . . I didn't necessarily at the time identify with one particular character, but certainly it fascinated me that these middle-aged people were willing to make such a dramatic change in the trajectory of their careers and lives."
How much art is still out there, lost? I'm thinking about that big recent art find in Munich—was that surprising to you?
"I'm surprised that that many works were found in one place, but I'm not surprised that it happened. It's the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of thousands of works of art missing to this day. And so this is just a small drop in the bucket to a much larger number."
Any examples of famous pieces that are still missing?
"There's an important Raphael painting, Portrait of a Gentleman, that was stolen from a Krakow museum, along with one of Leonardo's great works, Lady with an Ermine. They were taken by a Nazi general. We arrested him at the end of war; he had in his possession the Leonardo, which we recovered, but the Rafael was missing. So we know it survived the war. It's just one of hundreds of thousands of works."
Do armies nowadays have cultural preservation divisions, a legacy of the Monuments Men?
"Some do; some don't. There was a Hague UNESCO convention of 1954 that deals with the issue of how to protect cultural treasures during war. The U.S. was an early signatory. The Monuments Men's work was part of that treaty. The U.S. Army does have an arts-monuments-fine arts section; it's part of the civil affairs division, as the Monuments Men were during WWII. There is training that takes place, but it's among existing military; it's not these volunteers coming from the outside to be part of the military, as took place during WWII. There are some volunteers from the art and cultural community that go and help with the training. All of this has been heightened as a result of the fiasco in the days following the looting of the National Museum of Iraq. It wasn't just that it was the national archives, the library—some of it was theft, some were efforts to deliberately destroy it, like with flooding."
How did Iraq go so wrong?
"We didn't have leaders doing what only leaders can do, and that's lead. This worked during WWII because President Roosevelt authorized the creation of Monuments Men, [and] General Eisenhower empowered them with an historic directive. There were people there that had the expertise. Our people [today] are so talented, so dedicated, but they're not entrepreneurs; they take orders, and the orders have to come from the top. During Iraq we did issue orders to protect the oil and gas facilities, which is important, and the electrical grid, and that's important, but it wasn't from the top, that same priority concerning the protections of their cultural treasures wasn't made, and as a result, we were constantly reacting. And of course, by the time the people that were [sent] there to do something about it arrived, the thing had already blown up in our face."
Are there any current conflicts where this kind of work is relevant?
"The place that it's most relevant now is in Syria. We're seeing cultural monuments there - in the town of Aleppo, there was a 10th-century minaret blasted and obliterated just six months ago. Both sides are committing atrocities on cultural treasures because it's a way of doing something so audacious it garners media attention to their cause, and they then can hopefully get sympathy and money. It's a very real problem today, and I am not advocating that we send in military troops to try and protect cultural treasures. I think that's a mistake and that's not going to happen. But it raises all sort of questions about how technology could be used to at least do what we did do in Serbia in the Bosnia-Herzegovina war in 1991 and 1992, where generals were held accountable for destruction of cultural property. And, in fact, one Serb general was tried as a war criminal for the deliberate destruction of cultural property, and he was found guilty and is in prison. . . . They're going to realize in future wars . . . they're going to know, probably because they saw the movie and they're going to know everybody else saw it, and they're going to be thinking, ‘We don't want to make the same mistake again.' And that's a good thing."
I hear your foundation is also helping Allied soldiers return things they took during WWII.
"They did what soldiers have always done . . . but it was not OK to take cultural treasures. It probably was at the time - young guys knew, they told me, that nobody would believe them they'd been in Hitler's home. So they picked up whatever was lying on the floor . . . for the most understandable reasons. Our goal is to honor their service . . . This is a chance for them to come forward and be recognized for their service and show that American magnanimity in the twilight of their life. . . . We're not really interested in how someone got something back. As long as nobody's trafficking in it, our role is to work with people, sometimes anonymously, to get it back where it belongs. Everyone out there knows where all this stuff is. You may not know about it, you may not know that you've got it, you may not know anybody's looking for it or what to do about it. But I want to solve that for you. Come to us. We don't charge anybody for doing anything. We can't help everybody. But we want to be a resource out there and help people that might have something or are concerned that they've got something, and they want to do the right thing coming forward. We want to make sure they get honored for it. . . . In the case of Mr. Pistone in Beechwood Ohio, it sat on his dining room table for 60 years. He didn't know what it was; [to him] it was just a book he took from Hitler's home!"
What are your hopes for the film version?
"[The movie] is a perfect, perfect opportunity to put in the minds of moviegoers-slash-voters how during a world war, when we could have been excused for forgetting when we were a little busy, we didn't forget. We established a high bar for the protection of cultural treasures during the most destructive conflict in history, and that then becomes the way in my opinion we change public policy, and I hope inspire leaders to lead. . . . There is no substitute. It's gotta come from the CEO of the U.S., and that the president. . . . There is nothing we can do to curry more favor around the world than the president of the U.S. enunciating the importance of protecting cultural treasures just as a matter of general principle. You're going to have to walk the walk, also, but nobody has talked the talk since WWII. . . . There are rules out there that can be enforced. Works of art and cultural treasures belong to everybody; they're part of our shared civilization, and they survived all these years because people that came before us thought it was important to save them for us, and so it's our ongoing obligation . . . to continue that tradition."