MONUMENTAL MEN

In the glamorous and high stakes world of priceless art treasures, Dallas resident Robert Edsel’s tomes, Rescuing DaVinci and The Monuments Men have been made into the February film release, The Monuments Men starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and a cast of Hollywood luminaries. Here see how Lance Avery Morgan learns from Edsel how the film reveals the people who hid − and those who found − the world’s great treasures and what those treasures represent to all of us today.

Set among the ruins of World War II Robert Edsel’s nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History reads as much like a spy caper as it does a historical book. Goerge Clooney and Grant Heslov adapted Edsel’s book for film and it’s already being considered as an Oscar contender for next year. Clooney has said he wanted to make an ensemble cast film a la The Guns of Navarone while the sure-to-be blockbuster was filmed in Germany and England earlier this year. But the movie had to start somewhere.

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. Why did Hitler want to obliterate cultures as if they never existed after he and his army pillaged through the best of the best. Modern culture has recounted, through many terror-filled books and movies, the millions of lives that were taken away, and with them, expensive possessions. The Monuments Men film is 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 of these factors compelled Edsel to write this unforgettable story that has significantly contributed to the upcoming film based on his book.

“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 his book, he takes us to the past with vivid detail and 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 books benefited from that.”

In a conversation, Edsel 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. “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.  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.”

He goes on to say, “The Monuments Men 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. 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 a cultural backwater 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.”

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