When about 1,400 works of art worth an estimated $1.4 billion turned up in a Munich apartment in 2012, many stolen by Nazis during WWII, the art world reeled. One person who wasn't surprised, however, was oilman-turned-author Robert Edsel, 57. For the past 19 years, Edsel has devoted his life to not only stolen art but also the men and women who risked their lives to save some of the most treasured pieces. His book, The Monuments Men, now a George Clooney-Matt Damon movie out February 7, tells the story of the Allied efforts to save Europe's cultural treasures in the heat of battle. "Those thefts are the tip of the iceberg," Edsel says. "There are hundreds of thousands of works of art missing to this day."
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. Many were destined for what was to be the world's greatest museum in Hitler's hometown of Linz, Germany, where the Führer's frustrated artistic ambitions had their roots. In 1943, President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower created the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program to halt the heist. The ranks of the "Monuments Men" included both men and women from 13 countries, military and civilian, including artists, art historians, and museum directors. Many of the roughly 345 members were volunteers, with an average age of 40. They soon found themselves crisscrossing war-torn countries in search of masterpieces the Nazis had begun hiding as defeat became inevitable.
Even though two members of the MFAA were killed in combat, their story was virtually unknown. Edsel was determined to change that. The story was exciting – amateurs being strafed by fighter planes in search of lost Leonardos – and their success substantial: By the time they finished in 1951, the Monuments Men had rescued more than 5 million items, including works by Michelangelo, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, stashed everywhere from jail cells to castles.
So Edsel tracked down the 17 living members (Only four are alive today; the youngest is 87) and became enamored with their heroics. In addition to his help with the film, Edsel co-produced The Rape of Europa, an Emmy-winning documentary on the subject, and launched a nonprofit foundation to help carry on the MFAA's legacy of rescue, which received a National Humanities Medal in 2007. That same year, a Senate resolution finally recognized the Monuments Men officially for their service.
Edsel hopes moviegoers won't be too blinded by star power to realize the Monument Men's work is still relevant today. From the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 to the destruction of the minaret of a 12th-century mosque in Aleppo, Syria, in April 2013, conflicts continue to take a toll on history. The U.S. armed forces now have guidelines on the protection of cultural property, but they're not strict military protocols–and they sometimes fall far short, as shown by the looting of the National Museum of Iraq during the 2003 invasion.
"We established a high bar for the protection of cultural treasures during the most destructive conflict in history," Edsel says. "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. So it's our ongoing obligation . . . to continue that tradition."
For more on the story behind the book and movie, check out our full interview with Robert Edsel, the author of The Monuments Men.