Art exposes the best and most fragile qualities of man in the very moment of war. The nexus to choose between humanity and visceral destruction beyond death, ruination. Leaders and individuals have the choice to save art, steal art or simply shatter art beyond identity.
The destroyers are known, The looters are, for the most part, known. The protectors, on the other hand, are often invisible, unrecognized heroes, fading from history. Until, someone cuts through the clutter of daily news, nostalgic battle stories and stories of survival.
Robert Edsel, author of Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasurers from the Nazis and Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (George Clooney film trailer of the same name) is the clarion in the dark recognizing and honoring the men and women who served in the Allied forces during World War II to preserve and protect European cultural treasurers.
While speaking at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. on May 19th to a full auditorium, Edsel speaks of the Allied efforts in Italy during WWII and the importance that their courageous actions be a reminder to respect and value other culture’s treasurers today and that when ‘souvenirs’ appear in the public domain that they be returned home.
Edsel describes the extraordinary act of leadership by Gen. Eisenhower to institute a civilian division of historians, art preservationists and curators to work alongside soldiers to proactively support local efforts to efficiently and effectively protect as much cultural heritage as humanly possible to counter the destruction and art theft and plunder by the Germans.
With more than 150 civilian men and women serving in U.S. Forces during WWII, Edsel says, they represent a true way to win the “hearts and minds” of a nation wrought in conflict.
In Saving Italy, Edsel shares breathtaking stories of the bombing of Milan narrowly missing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Super – by a few feet; the destruction of Florence and the battlefield of Monte Cassino. Edsel reveals the historical tapestry of Allied and Axis leaders in the quest to conquer the enemy, destroy the spirit of civilians to capitulate through the theft and destruction of art and cultural heritage.
Edsel has interviewed many of the last living Monuments Men often asking the question, “Is art worth dying for?”
In the exchange, Leonard says that he had already faced this question when he served on the bomb disposal squad tasked with dismantling 22 bombs planted around Chartres Cathedral in France. When Leonard finished dismantling the bombs, he shared that he received the greatest award possible. Tapper inquired who was possibly there to give Leonard an award. Leonard said his reward was worth everything,
one hour alone in Chartres Cathedral.
Edsel says this exchange reveals the distinction between dying for a work of art and dying for a cause. Of course, everyone believed that “the life of one American boy is infinitatly worth more than any monument.” However, it is clear, the men and women within the Monuments Men unit in Europe were willing to defend the cause and “understood the risk that they were taking”.
Potentially, according to the Monuments Men Foundation, over 5 million art pieces were returned and many remain missing.
The mystery of the missing, exposes the other side of human nature, theft, even among honorable men. As veterans age and families are left to handle estates, long forgotten ‘souvenirs’ are surfacing in auctions and antique galleries.
Two photo albums created by the Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) of the looting of French and other European art surfaced in the personal collections of two U.S. WW II veterans who served in Germany and during a dramatic ceremony were donated to National Archives in 2012.
One may ask why were they not returned to Germany. As in any theft – title of ownership is not transferred. Philosophically, a question may even be proposed – is stealing from the enemy, the commander of the enemy, the dictator who ordered a genocide so extensive beyond human comprehension – stealing?
Regardless of philosophical positions, as ‘souvenirs’ enter the public domain, two questions remain:
Is there amnesty for the person who removed cultural objects be it books, art, jewelry or furniture?
Who has the legal position to determine ownership?
Edsel repeats often that when missing art is found these pieces must be returned home.
Today, museums grapple with collections tainted by Nazi looted art; Jewish families search hopefully for disappeared family treasures; and, families of veterans of foreign wars discover ‘souvenirs’.
Edsel announced during his book talk that several new ‘souvenirs’ have recently been discovered and will be returned home. More will be revealed in the next couple of weeks.
As though a bellwether for today’s conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan with notable tragic destruction of cultural heritage, Edsel exposes the last lingering remnants of any war, the stories of those who stole, those who protected, and now those who return home, art.
Cultural heritage is for the survivors of war to mark human accomplishments for the future of humankind.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographers, Washington, D.C. (Please follow 9 Muses News copyright use policy.)
For any international travelers – for diplomacy, business, media, tourism – know the laws before you bomb, destroy, purchase or sell cultural artifacts.
For institutions or families searching for missing art,
Holocaust Art Restitution Project –Plundered Art
Swiss Federal Office of Culture Bureau of Looted Art portal
For families discovering ‘souvenirs’ of veterans of foreign wars,
Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II by Ilaria Dagnini Brey
Ingenuity Cards to Protect Cultural Heritage in War, Conflict and Galleries by Keri Douglas
Monuments Men Foundation Returns 8 Rare Books to Italy