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Liberating treasure

September 16, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic

"This is the greatest untold story of World War II," says Robert M. Edsel, leafing through his profusely illustrated book about the return of Nazi-confiscated art. A labor of love and research, "Rescuing da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art -- America and Her Allies Recovered It" focuses on the Monuments Men, a mostly volunteer cadre of about 350 men -- and women -- who worked for the Allied Forces' Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section.

Charged with tracking down, identifying, cataloging and sending Nazi loot back to the countries from which it was taken, the Monuments Men rounded up thousands of missing items in caves, mines, castles, storerooms and country estates. Their finds included Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine," now at the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland, and works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Gogh and Picasso, among other pillars of art history.

The story isn't really untold. Lynn H. Nicholas wrote the definitive account in her 1994 book, "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War." But Edsel -- a retired Texas oilman who became obsessed with the Monuments Men a few years ago while living and studying art in Italy -- targets a much broader audience with a relatively short text and lots of pictures, unearthed in libraries, archives, government offices and collections in Europe and the United States.

"I wanted to have a better visual understanding of the story," Edsel says. "As I learned more about it, I was impressed by Monuments Men who later got big museum jobs, and distressed that they had never been recognized as a group. Many people who have had art restituted don't know about them. Newspaper articles say artworks were returned by the Allied Forces, but it was the Monuments Men. They have names and faces."

Among the best known are James J. Rorimer, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1955 to 1966; Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1958 to 1983; and Otto Wittman, who led the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio from 1947 to 1976, retired to Southern California and became a consultant to the J. Paul Getty Trust.

"This is a case where the victors said, 'The spoils do not belong to the victors. These things should be given back,' " Edsel says. "That message needs to be communicated and in a manner in which people speak today."

To that end, he has joined forces with Nicholas as co-producer of a documentary film based on her book. Written, directed and co-produced by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham for Menemsha Films, "The Rape of Europa" will open Sept. 28 in Los Angeles at Laemmle theaters.

-- Suzanne Muchnic

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