[Recommended Reading] The Real Monuments Men

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We recognize the anniversary of United States’ independence today by sharing an article from Parade Magazine highlighting the best-selling book and movie release earlier this year of the Monuments Men. Read on for an interview with the author and a history lesson that up until now, hasn’t been known to many. In Minnesota Rising spirit, it’s powerful to remember how a story that seems decades old can still be written by us years later in order to shape a different future!

GIs recover stolen paintings under the supervision of Monuments Men captain James Rorimer (second from left).
How a coalition of unlikely heroes managed to save the world’s great art from the Nazis.
Amid the carnage of World War II, Adolf Hitler ­devised a plan to steal ­Europe’s finest artworks and display them in his own ­Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. The Allied effort to thwart the Nazis fell to a ­little-known group of ­soldiers—curators, archivists, and ­other art experts in ­civilian life—charged with tracking down the looted works across ­Europe, starting in the war’s last year. Their saga is portrayed in the new movie The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney. But the story was first told in a best-selling book of the same ­title. We asked author Robert Edsel how he came to join their quest.
What inspired you to write your book?
In 1996, I moved to Florence with my family and began studying art and architecture. One day as I walked across the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in the city that wasn’t destroyed by the Nazis, I wondered: How did so many works of art survive the most destructive war in history? That set me down a path of curiosity that led to the Monuments Men.
Was it tough to find them?
I interviewed 17 Monuments ­Officers—only five are alive ­today—of the original 350 or so. These men and women were incredibly great letter writers, and they shared their letters and experiences from the war with me.
Can you give some sense of the scale of the Nazi looting during the war?
In spring 1945, Monuments Officers began finding mines, caves, and castles throughout Europe filled with hundreds of thousands of stolen objects. By the time the Monuments Men were done, they’d recovered over 5 million works: tapestries, paintings, sculptures, church bells, stained glass.
Claudette Barius
In the film, Matt Damon plays a character inspired by James Rorimer, pictured above.(Claudette Barius)
Your book details the experience of Rose Valland [on whom Cate Blanchett’s character is based], a Louvre curator who helped the Monuments Men.Rose Valland is one of the great heroines of World War II. She’s this remarkable Frenchwoman who was a spy under the eyes of the Nazis for four years. She understood German, but didn’t let them know it. If they had caught her, they would have killed her.
Are there notable works that are thought to have survived the war but are still missing?
Probably the single most important painting that’s missing is ­Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, which came from a museum in Krakow. The governor general of the Nazi-occupied area of Poland and Nazi leader Hermann Goering went back and forth over this painting, one seizing it from the other. These guys were like two kids fighting over marbles. When the governor general was arrested after the war, the Raphael was gone. Monuments Man Bernie Taper spent two years investigating every lead and just ran into dead ends. But that picture is out there somewhere. The point is these things can be found—look at the works discovered in ­Munich recently, including art by Picasso and Matisse.
Some artworks fell into the hands of ordinary soldiers on both sides who brought them home after the war. What about those?
The whereabouts of Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man have been unknown since 1945.
We want people to be looking for these things, stored in basements and hanging on walls, while their parents and grandparents are still alive and can tell us where the items came from. That’s one of the film’s great perks: If you get the public engaged in locating these items, they can help write the final chapter of World War II history.
For information about the search for artworks that may have been taken as souvenirs, go to SupportTheMonumentsMen.com.
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