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'The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History'

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The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History


Robert M Edsel with Bret Witter


August 2009


The text of the 3 September 2009 publisher's press release is set out below together with a review by Marilyn Henry of 14 January 2010:


New Book The Monuments Men Reveals Secrets About Nazi-Plundered Treasures and the Unsung Heros Who Risked Everything to Save Them


Equal Parts War Memoir and Espionage Novel, The Monuments Men Brings to Life a Little-Known Section of the Armed Services and Its Contributions Recovering Priceless Historical Treasures


“Whatever these paintings may have been to men who looked at them a generation back—today they are not only works of art. Today they are the symbols of the human spirit, and of the world the freedom of the human spirit made …To accept this work today is to assert the purpose of the people of America that the freedom of the human spirit and human mind which has produced the world’s great art and all its science—shall not be utterly destroyed.” --President Franklin D.

Roosevelt, Dedication Ceremony of the National Gallery of Art, March 17, 1941


“It used to be called plundering. But today things have become more humane. In spite of that, I intend to plunder, and to do it thoroughly.” --Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Speaking to a conference of ReichCommissioners for the

Occupied Territories and the Military Commanders, Berlin, August 6, 1942


In World War II, the Allies fought a Germanic threat intent on taking over the world. Beyond the familiar history lesson lies the untold story of the Nazi plot to also seize the world’s greatest cultural treasures, thwarted by one tiny band of soldiers as detailed in the new book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Center Street, September 2009, $26.99). This overlooked story from WWII is relevant today in that irreplaceable historical artifacts are still missing from the greatest plunder committed in human history, with restoration, search and discovery ongoing. In fact, a Monet and Renoir among several other paintings were discovered in 2007 in the safety deposit box of a former Nazi official in Switzerland, begging the question what priceless and missing piece of art will turn up next?


 The Monuments Men details how art objects—either stolen from museums in conquered areas or from Jewish individuals sent to their deaths—were secreted away in hidden storehouses carved into mountains, buried deep in salt mines, sunk in boggy marshes and concealed in chalets and fairy-tale European palaces for the purpose of creating Hitler’s vision of a Germanic Über-museum, along of course with the enrichment of top party officials. More than five million cultural objects were taken during the war, including valuable paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, and sculpture by Michelangelo and Donatello, threatening to erase human history as we know it. Chronicling the most unlikely band of heroes who comprised a little-known unit called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, The Monuments Men presents in thrilling detail the race against time and the ever-changing frontlines to liberate the world’s most priceless art pieces from the Fuhrer’s grip. 


Reading partly like a war memoir of the principal soldiers, most of whom volunteered for the unit and possessed expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists, the book includes personal diary entries, letters and statements from interviews with the few remaining surviving unit members, representing more than 13 years of interest in the subject by author Robert Edsel including five years of intense research. Sprinkled amongst the facts is invented dialogue animating the story—all based on available research. The Monuments Men captures the harsh elements of combat along with the futility these few men—swelling to around 60 by the end of combat and then to 350 after the war’s end—felt in chasing down what amounted to needles in a haystack. Even 44 years later, hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, documents and books are missing including Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” stolen from Poland and last possessed by Nazi Governor General Hans Frank.   

Detailing the amazing caches of cultural objects hidden all over greater Europe, The Monuments Men reveals the treasure troves at sites such as Neuschwanstein castle, the mythical proportions of which inspired Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland, and the truth behind the motherlode concealed in the Altaussee salt mines, sealed by palsy mine charges where arguably the most precious finds existed, in addition to the recovery of the ‘art train’ through persistent spying by a volunteer member of the Jeu de Paume. Despite the adventure of the treasure hunt detailed in the book, finding the stolen belongings brings alive the atrocities commited by the Nazis when one understands the fate of some of the items’ owners. Harry Ettlinger, an MFAA soldier and German Jew who emigrated to America just 6 years before joining the service, said, “My knowledge of the Holocaust started really with the realization that it was not only the taking of lives–that I learned much later in my experience–but the taking of all of their belongings… [For me] Neuschwanstein was the start of really opening up that part of history that should never be forgotten.”


Aside from the obvious importance of the cultural recoveries, the MFAA unit also deserves recognition as it “marked the first time an army fought a war while comprehensively attempting to mitigate cultural damage, and it was performed without adequate transportation, supplies, personnel, or historical precedent,” writes Edsel. In fact, there has never been a dedicated unit of the kind since World War II.  Begun to identify important cultural sites of historic importance and salvage them if possible during the campaign, the unit’s most laborious function proved to be the treasure hunt for the stolen artwork and the reparation process—another first in warfare departing from the usual “to the victor goes the spoils” custom. Despite tireless work since World War II, thousands of objects have never been claimed due to ownership legitimacy issues or the death of the original owners at the hands of the Nazis.


There is a growing sense of recognition for the MFAA unit and their incalculable contributions, writes Edsel. “On June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of the ‘D-Day’ landings in Normandy, resolutions in both Houses of the United States Congress officially acknowledged for the first time the contributions of the Monuments Men and women of thirteen nations. The resolutions, sponsored by both conservative and liberal members of the House and Senate, passed unanimously. Soon after, the Monuments Men and their primary advocacy group, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, were awarded the 2007 National Humanities Medal, which some say is the United States’ equivalent of ‘knighthood’. Four of the twelve living Monuments Men were able to travel to Washington, D.C. to attend the ceremony.”


Robert Edsel founded The Monuments Men Foundation to preserve the legacy of the heroic men and women who served in the Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives section. For more information, visit

About the Author:

Robert Edsel began his career in the oil and gas exploration business. In 1996 he moved his family to Europe. Settling in Florence seeing some of the great works, he wondered how all of the monuments and art treasures survived the devastation of World War II. During the ensuing years, he devoted himself to finding the answer. In the process, he commissioned major research that has resulted in this book. Robert also coproduced the related documentary film, The Rape of Europa, and wrote Rescuing Da Vinci, a photographic history of an art heist of epic proportions and the Allied rescue effort. The author lives in Dallas.

Bret Witter cowrote the bestseller Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (Grand Central, 2008). He lives in Louisville, KY.


The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter                                           ISBN: 9781599951492

Hardcover, 6”x9”, 432 pp, $26.99, History                            Center Street

Pub Date: 9/3/2009

Review by Marilyn Henry 'The Art of War' from the Jerusalem Post 14 January 2010 below:

As American troops fought the Nazis, US commanders were given an unprecedented military assignment: Defeat fascism without destroying European monuments and the continent's cultural heritage. Military needs would always trump cultural preservation, but monuments and artworks were to be protected, where possible, from war damage, ransacking and military requisition.

This was a tall order filled by an unusual assortment of painters, sculptors, architects, historians and curators who begged, borrowed or scrounged the means to protect monuments in the Allied military's path, repair those that had been damaged by war and find caches of looted property. These were the "monuments men," members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section, a minuscule part of the US military. Along with British counterparts, they were officers of low rank and "superior" education who were charged with the preservation of Europe's great treasures.

Although the monuments men were virtually unknown for a half-century after World War II, two new books tell the story of the mission and the men who fulfilled it. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, covers the wartime and immediate postwar work of the monuments men in Northern Europe. Ilaria Dagnini Brey has written The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy's Art During World War II. Both books are ambitious, beautifully written and compelling history. (Edsel took some liberties by recreating dialogue, which was not too troubling.)

Edsel has painted vivid pictures of the monument men's courage, skill and moxie as they began their mission in the middle of the war. He also gives one of the most detailed accounts in English of France's formidable Rose Valland, who worked in Paris's Jeu de Palme museum during the Nazi occupation and bravely kept track of the artworks that had been looted. The monuments men briefly helped repatriate artworks found in the US Occupation Zones immediately after the war.

The number of objects was staggering. In western Germany alone, the Allies had discovered more than 1,000 repositories and caches of cultural properties - millions of works of art and cultural objects, including Torah scrolls, church bells, ceremonial religious items, archives, manuscripts, books, wine, gold, diamonds - and an insect collection.

Neither Edsel nor Brey shies away from revealing the frustration, fatigue and loneliness of the monuments men. Working alone or in pairs, they faced herculean challenges, at times amid enemy fire, with inadequate or unreliable support from the military, which reasonably put its battle plans and the welfare of its men above the welfare of monuments. Yet, to the monuments men's credit, they persevered.

"From my point of view, this is not a bad job," George Stout, formerly of Harvard's Fogg Museum, wrote to a colleague in October 1944. "During the last three weeks I've been in harness with an Englishman who's gone terribly sour and says we're wasting our time. I don't know what he expected. Some strange romantic adventure, personal glory or great authority, perhaps. He doesn't convince me. We can't count the result but I'm satisfied, not with what I've done but with what the job stands for."

In Italy, political disarray and changing military conditions imperiled monuments and artworks. Monuments men attempted to salvage works they could not easily protect and became known as the "Venus fixers." (This moniker apparently began as something of a joke, but subsequently was worn with pride.) Brey tells of one of the men, Frederick Hartt, an Allied officer who, in addition to rescuing Florentine art, had helped save churches and palazzi in Sicily from the threats of weather, vandalism and theft. Hartt wrote they had saved them "from slipping from history into oblivion."

Edsel has done something similar for the monuments men. Long before the publication of his book, he was seeking - and winning - recognition for their wartime work. Men like Hartt, Stout and James Rorimer returned to important careers in American cultural and art historical circles. When Hartt died in 1991, The New York Times reported that he had been a widely published scholar of Renaissance art and listed the American universities at which he taught. But it overlooked his work in Italy.

FOR ALL the public discussion on Nazi-era looting in the last dozen years, and demands for information regarding the provenance of artworks, systematic research of plunder and acquisitions seems to be sorely lacking. There are few comprehensive and easily accessible sources that identify and trace the fates of objects that were confiscated or displaced during World War II.

Nancy H. Yeide, the head of curatorial records at the US National Gallery of Art, has made a profound contribution to the historical record by cataloging the art collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe and a self-styled Renaissance man. With images and provenance information on some 1,800 works Goering acquired, Yeide's book Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection dramatically illustrates the extent to which Goering was indeed the Nazi master plunderer. Yeide's work on Goering was not an academic exercise. While researching Goering's artworks, she located a Francois Boucher painting that had been looted from the Paris art dealer Andre Seligmann in 1940. The painting, which had been donated to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in 1993, was returned to Seligmann's heirs in 2004.

With its archival and scholarly depth, Yeide's book is important to historians, museums and art professionals. Unfortunately, a book of this heft was quite expensive to publish, and its price tag puts it beyond individual reach. But it should be essential for collections in universities and libraries.

None of these books is about Jewish cultural losses, although these losses are briefly touched on in Edsel's book. However, these volumes are welcomed additions to the small batch of books on Holocaust-era looting. They are valuable in their own rights and for keeping attention focused on the magnitude and unresolved issues of Nazi looting.

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