WASHINGTON—It was the greatest art theft in history. It was also the greatest rescue.
The looting of Europe's public and private collections by the Nazis beginning in the 1930s propelled a small army of art experts under the auspices of U.S. forces to launch a search and rescue of works of art that had been stored in salt mines, caves and castles to protect them from the ravages of war.
The "Monuments Men," as they were known, tracked down, identified and catalogued millions of works of art and cultural artifacts by such masters as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Vermeer, for the purpose of returning them to their owners. They also identified historical and cultural sites to prevent Allied forces from bombing them.
"Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art, America and her Allies Recovered It" (Laurel Publishing, $55), by Dallas author Robert Edsel, puts the spotlight on these little-known heroes, who hailed from many nations. It also identifies 12 living members of the 350-member team.
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During World War II, U.S. art experts and organizations won the support of President Franklin Roosevelt for a national effort to preserve art in the European theater. The president established a commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, that led to the creation of a monuments, fine arts and archives branch of the Allied armies in 1943.
European institutions already had swung into action following Germany's attack on Poland in 1939. Louvre museum curators moved 400,000 works of art out of Paris within a few weeks, stripping the walls bare, and kept moving them throughout the war.
Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," the most famous painting in the world, was moved six times during the war. From its home in the Louvre, it was first moved to a chateau outside of Paris, traveling by ambulance to better disguise the occupant. The back of the ambulance was sealed to protect the painting, but "the curator who went with it almost fell out when they got there from lack of oxygen," Edsel said.
Much of the thousands of pieces of war booty that the Nazis confiscated were for Adolf Hitler himself. The Nazi leader was obsessed with collecting the finest art for his museum, which he designed to be built in Linz, Austria, near his birthplace. Hitler's "most coveted work of art," according to Edsel, was Vermeer's "The Astronomer," which was among hundreds of works that the Nazis took from Jewish banker Edouard de Rothschild's collection in Paris. It's now at the Louvre.
The Monuments Men discovered a stash of more than 6,500 works being held for the Linz museum at Alt Aussee, a salt mine near Salzburg. Edsel said that one of his most breathtaking moments during his research occurred when he found a swastika-embossed leather-bound book in Krakow that was made for Hitler. It listed the "available" art in the occupied region for him to peruse and select.
Da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine," originally part of a private collection in Krakow, was the subject of a tug-of-war between Hans Frank, the Nazi governor general of Poland, and Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command, who had a fondness for art looted from the occupied countries.
For the small cadre of Monuments Men, coming into contact with treasures wrapped up and stacked on top of each other at the bottom of a mine was a profound experience.
Sgt. Harry Ettlinger was a 19-year-old Jewish refugee from Germany who had emigrated to the United States only to be drafted into the Army. The young soldier, valued for his language skills, ended up as part of the Monuments Men in Germany's Heilbronn salt mines, supervising the removal of a treasure trove of art. Some had been stolen by the Nazis; others had been placed in storage by German museums. The salt, which captures moisture in the air, and the cool underground temperatures helped preserve the paintings.
Among the thousands of artifacts Ettlinger helped rescue was a Rembrandt self-portrait that a museum in nearby Karlsruhe had placed in the mine.
"We are here to come along and save the treasures of the world that belong to all of us," Ettlinger said of the Monuments Men's mission. "We Americans should be proud that we have learned the concept that to give is more rewarding than to take."
Ettlinger, 81, returned to the United States and became a mechanical engineer. He was so self-effacing about his wartime service that his congressman, New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, who's known him for 20 years and is the co-sponsor of a resolution to honor the Monuments Men, was unaware of his work as an art detective.
The treasure hunt was spurred in at least one case when soldiers overheard townswomen gossiping about Nazi activity at a sealed mineshaft.
The fear of losing the world's masterpieces even reached the United States; in 1942, the National Gallery of Art moved 75 of its works to the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilt family's French chateau-like building near Asheville, N.C., for safekeeping.
The tales of the Monuments Men gripped Edsel when he was living in Europe a few years ago. A wealthy former Texas oil and gas executive and onetime professional tennis player, Edsel turned into a self-taught art historian as he became obsessed with the history of the art treasures rescued and restored after the war.
"In the sense of civilization, it's irreplaceable," he said.
Edsel poured about $2 million of his own money into researching and digging for photos in archives, churches and museums; he ended up publishing the book himself. The book became available on Amazon.com and in major bookstores in early January.
Hollywood has taken notice, and producers are talking to Edsel about a movie. He already helped co-produce a documentary, the "Rape of Europa," based on a scholarly book by Lynn Nicholas about the looted art.
"Robert tells the same story from photographs by finding the archival photos that tell the story visually," said Dallas art expert Edmund "Ted" Pillsbury, who co-authored the book's foreword.
"Many of these Monument Men returned to America and became leaders of art museums from 1945 to 1975," Pillsbury added. One, Harry Grier, was the director of the Frick Collection in New York, as well as the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
For Edsel, honoring the Monuments Men is now a race against time. He met with 98-year-old S. Lane Faison last fall to hear his story. Faison, who had a long career as an art professor at Williams College, had never talked extensively about his role in saving Western art.
"I've been waiting to meet you all of my life," he told Edsel.
He died 10 days later.
For more information about the Monuments Men and the book, go to www.rescuingdavinci.com
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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