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Search and Rescue

In the glamorous and high stakes world of priceless art treasures, Dallas resident Robert Edsel’s new tome, Rescuing DaVinci reads as much a spy caper as a coffee table book. Set among the ruins of World War II this intriguing book reveal the people who hid − and those who found − the world’s great treasures and what those treasures represent to all of us today.

Standing alone on the Ponte Vechio Bridge in Florence, Italy, Robert Edsel was moved. So moved, in fact, that he felt the need to try and fully understand how the art treasures of World War II survived the wreckage that befell Europe. Part sleuth and part art aficionado, Edsel has the personality of a man who takes action. He set out to find the long overdue answers to questions that have beleaguered the cultural world for over seventy years…where were the treasures hidden, how were they returned, and for those pieces not returned, what happened to them?

During World War II, Hitler and his troops were known to have pillaged hundreds of cities across Europe. Modern culture has recounted, through many terror-filled books and movies, the millions of lives that were taken away, and with them, expensive possessions. In over 460 rarely published or seen before photographs, Rescuing Da Vinci’sreaders take a visual journey detailing Hitler and the Nazis’ unimaginable plundering of Europe’s greatest works of art. It is the story of the heroic search and rescue conducted by a seemingly unknown group of Allied soldiers known as The Monuments Men. These were the enlisted soldiers responsible for finding and saving all the priceless treasures that had been stashed away. All these factors also compelled Edsel to write this unforgettable story that has significantly contributed to the upcoming documentary, The Rape of Europa, based on the early 1994 book of the same name.

“The United States did something valiant during World War II to protect the greatest cultural treasures of the world,” says Edsel. “Our country did not take a single work of art as war booty. On the contrary, it made every effort including more than six years {after} the close of the war to return to victims their belongings,” he reveals.

In Edsel’s book, he takes us to the past with vivid detail…

A painting by Leonardo da Vinci, stolen; another by Caravaggio, destroyed; a portrait by Raphael – along with thousands of other works of art – still missing. This is the legacy of Hitler, Göring, and other Nazis’ looting of Europe and Russia during World War II. Hitler diverted attention from the prosecution of the war to the systematic theft of Europe’s greatest art. His dream of building the world’s greatest museum- the Führer Museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria-obsessed him to the bitter end.

Museum officials and volunteers in Europe took extraordinary measures to protect art from Hitler and the ensuing war. When U.S. forces landed in Europe, they assembled a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, and art historians known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. These “Monuments Men” attempted to minimize damage to European monuments and architecture, then track down stolen works of art. Their effort would become one of the greatest “treasure hunts” in history. In the end, Allied Forces located more then 1,000 repositories, in mines and castles, many of which contained art, sculpture, furniture, and other treasures stolen by the Nazis. But many pieces are still missing. Efforts to locate and return missing art continue to this day.

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s great masterpieces, widely presumed to be a portrait of the Duke of Milan’s mistress (Cecilia Gallerani), the Lady with an Ermine had been in the collection of the noble Czartoryski family in Poland for several generations. At the onset of World War II, the family hid their treasures at their country estate. But the Nazis found and stole much of the Czartoryski collection, including Lady with an Ermine, in September 1939.

During the war, the painting was the object of competing affections between Governor-General Hans Frank and Hermann Göring. Kajetan Mühlmann, Nazi SS officer and “Special Delegate for the Securing of Art and Cultural Goods,” carried the painting from Cracow to Berlin and back on several occasions. After the war the Allies captured Frank and discovered the portrait in his possession. It was one of many Polish treasures returned by train to Cracow in late April 1946. This photograph shows Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine with Polish Monuments officer, Karol Estreicher, who escorted the painting home from Germany.

One of the most influential figures in the history of western art, Leonardo was raised in the small town of Vinci outside Florence and began his artistic career as an apprentice in the Florentine studio of Andrea Verrocchio. He was a draughtsman, painter, sculptor, architect, engineer, inventor, and writer – the original “Renaissance man” whose contributions to a wide range of disciplines are virtually immeasurable. Leonardo was one of the most celebrated artists in his own lifetime, working for such impressive patrons as the Giuliano de’ Medici in Rome, the Sforza in Milan, Isabella d’Este in Mantua, and the French King Francis I.

The number of fully accepted paintings by Leonardo is relatively small, as many works were never completed by the artist and others have since been lost. Those that have survived are among the most famous paintings in the history of art, all of which were at risk of being damaged or stolen during World War II.

When Robert Edsel speaks, people listen. As a lecturer and author, he travels around the world to tell the story of the looting of these art gems. His past in the oil and gas industry offered him no formal training for such an artful pursuit. “I had to let go of what I was familiar with so I sold my business and started again from the ground up. By being in Florence and Paris so much, I became interested in art even more,” Edsel states. “I began to spend time with art historians and wanted to understand more from them, so I starting reading books, my eye became trained, and the book benefited from that.”

In a recent conversation, he told me what the process of writing this book has meant to his life and to those of us who are deeply affected by art.

Lance Avery Morgan: Robert, when I learned of your book I had no idea of your own journey in writing it. How did it all start?

Robert Edsel: Five years ago, when I embarked on this project, I couldn’t possibly foresee the path I would walk. In many ways, I didn’t choose this project: it chose me. It has demanded every ounce of my energy, resources, and creative thought. It really continues to provide me with amazing experiences as we get closer and closer to identifying all 400 or so of the Monuments Men and women. Each time I speak publicly, many members of the audience visiting with me afterwards express their heartfelt appreciation for our efforts. I hear over and over again how important it is that we honor these heroes and bring attention to their deeds and service. Leaders today must have an appreciation of and respect for the cultures of other countries and do all within their power to protect that heritage.

LAM: And the Monuments Men are an integral part of what you created. The exposure of the Monuments Men has spurred a nation-wide interest to solve their mysterious identities.

RE: They fuel my fire for what I do. It’s not just the Monuments Men still living, either. They were all a part of rescuing irreplaceable art…the basis of our cultural world. You have to remember that millions of documents - the ones that run our society - were lost to the war, but found thanks to these men. An example of one such man is Col. Seymour J. Pomrenze, who just happens to be Jewish. I mention that because he found the first of the 1024 Torah scrolls that were missing. He was an archivist his entire career. You know, these guys built the cultural country we know today − in the United States, especially. Remember that the U.S., before WWII, was considered cultural back water compared to the rest of the world. But after the war, these Monuments Men became the directors, curators, art historians, and leaders of the greatest museums we know today. Lincoln Kirstein, who created the New York City Ballet, is an example of such a cultural leader.

LAM: They were a huge component of the book and the documentary – and that changes daily, too, right?

RE: The Monuments Men are so crucial to telling the story. We are also hot on the heels of the granddaughter of a Monuments Man, a young woman who never knew about her grandfather’s important role during World War II. This is a story we have heard on more than one occasion. A day in our “lab” appeals to the young men and women doing this very important research. I am so proud of their efforts. Anyone who believes the youth of our country doesn’t care about history or our veterans, should stop by our office for a few minutes. They, like all audiences, just need some good stories to find that connection we all have to this remarkable story. After finding them, get out of the way because they understand we need to recognize these heroes that are so deserving of our praise.

LAM: Because the war happened almost seventy years ago, it seems like time might be running out to recognize the Monument Men.

LAM: You’re so right. There are fifteen living Monuments Men. We think we’ve located the first living woman. We filmed a lot of them for the documentary. When we started six years ago, the youngest was 80 and the oldest is now 99. They were very touched by the book and we’re working on a congressional resolution to recognize them. They’ve been overlooked by history and now it’s a race against time. Every time we go to museum to enjoy these works of art, we owe these men a debt of gratitude. I am committed to making their story known.

LAM: The documentary, The Rape of Europa, will be making the film festival rounds and will also air on PBS in the Spring…

RE: The documentary tells a story that needs to be told visually. I originally connected with Lynn Nicholas, the author of the book on which the documentary is based, because I had an overall fascination of story. She recognized the value in what I had done with my research and my book, she felt like the film makers needed me. Filming began in 2001 for ten weeks I was in Europe with the film crew to shoot in many places including Munich, Nuremburg, and in the salt mines in Alt Aussee. These mines still the racks and shelving that held so many masterpieces. Plus, we had unprecedented access to the great monuments of academia – the Louvre, the Hermitage, every significant place between the U.S. and Russia.

LAM: The documentary tells about both the past and the present….

RE: Exactly. We use new and archival footage and we have actress Joan Allen narrating it…it’s her first documentary. It’s really compelling because it starts with interviewing Maria Altmann, who at 90 years old, describes being a newlywed in Nazi-ruled Vienna of 1938 and her first-hand experience with the Nazis taking paintings off the walls of her home. When we finished the film we had time to go back and shoot the museum in Los Angeles where some of the paintings were hung. She has tremendous faculty and to have lived long enough to receive the pictures back is remarkable. She just sold one of the paintings to Ronald Lauder several months ago. The documentary shows many extraordinary sets of circumstances like that.

LAM: Many of the works stolen were Old Masters paintings, which seem to be just as popular as ever now… the ones rescued that you write about in your book. RE: Any doubt about the increasing level of restitutions must be put to rest when examining sales catalogues from the major auction houses. Recently, I received the Old Master sales catalogue from Christie’s in New York. Included in their sale are no less than five paintings that were stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, two of the paintings were looted by Nazi authorities from the collection of Jacques Goudstikker, the great Dutch collector/dealer who had more than 1,000 paintings stolen after fleeing Holland in 1940. One of these paintings was, amazingly, still in the hands of Walter Andreas Hofer, Hermann Goring’s principal art advisor, as late as 1971. Most of the time when paintings such as these are restituted they are placed for sale at auction by the heirs. This happens for a variety of reasons, principal among them being the simple math of it. There are usually multiple family members yet no way to distribute a painting in portions. Additionally, collecting, like passion, is not really inherited; it’s something a person either has or doesn’t have. Most collectors live for the chase, the continuous desire to possess and build. This group of restituted paintings is, in my view, just the tip of the iceberg of what promises to show up over the next five years as more and more stolen works – those being actively searched for by heirs, and those that surface after years of hiding that, upon being researched, are found to have been stolen. It promises to be a very exciting time for those of us familiar with the story. We have a front row seat to history as the last chapter of this amazing saga unfolds.

LAM: Do you feel that history could repeat itself? RE: In the past the United States demonstrated a cultural sensitivity that is starkly absent in our foreign policy today. We should learn from the past, without question, especially those in leadership positions. But we should also be telling the world about the good things we have done as a nation, especially something as gargantuan as the task we faced in protecting and returning the millions of items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. After all, if Americans don’t tell others about our good deeds, how will people ever know?

LAM: What’s one thing you hope a reader takes from this book and the documentary?

RE: It’s not a Holocaust story, but the Holocaust is embedded in it. It’s not a story about art, but art is embedded in it. To me, it’s about the greatest theft ever – the greatest treasure hunt ever – on a scale no one could have imagined. We’ve found a whole arena of leaders and visionaries who got in and did something about it. As a Monument Man recently told me, ‘You’re one of us. You are a Monument Man with us.’ It validates all the hard work to make this happen.

To learn more about this story and to order the book, visit