The forgotten treasure hunt

“Monuments Men” display art looted by the Nazis, including Portrait of a Lady, held by James Rorimer.

“Monuments Men” display art looted by the Nazis, including Portrait of a Lady, held by James Rorimer.

Robert Edsel reaches to the side of his seat and produces a large cardboard box, adorned with the black and red of the Nazi swastika. With the air of a conjurer, he puts on a pair of white gloves and draws out of the box a leather-bound album, its cover barely clinging to the hinges.

It is hard not to be uncomfortable in the presence of this book. It is one of a number of albums assembled by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazis’ leading racial theorist and head of the ERR, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the primary Nazi looting organisation. The Nazis’ meticulous record-keeping is evident in this album, in which Rosenberg and his staff gave every piece of art they stole an ERR number and a code which showed from whom it had been taken.

The first entry in this album is the 18th-century Portrait of a Lady by Nicolas de Largillière, which once belonged to the Rothschild family in Paris. It had been looted along with hundreds of other pieces, and cynically assigned the number R 437, meaning that it was the 437th piece of art that the Nazis stole from the Rothschilds.

So how and why is Robert Edsel, a Dallas businessman, clutching an album which Hitler regularly looked through in order to consider how best to develop his collection of stolen art?

He is, he would be the first to admit, an unlikely candidate as “poster-boy” — a term he uses a lot — for art restitution. He was a leading teenage tennis player. Then, as he puts it, he “fell into” the oil and gas industry and made an enormous amount of money. But by 1995, aged 39, Edsel felt like “a hamster on a treadmill”. He sold out and, with his wife and young son, aged two, decamped for Europe.

On February 29, 1996 the Edsels arrived in Paris. “Everything we owned was in our car… and then we ended up in Florence.”

Author Robert Edsel

Author Robert Edsel

With almost nothing to do except read and take his son, Diego, to and from school, Edsel developed a voracious curiosity for what he saw around him. “I started studying art and art history. And one day I had an epiphany on the Ponte Vecchio: it had never occurred to me before. How did these great works of art survive the war, and who saved them?”

Edsel turned into a kind of art detective. He discovered the previously little-known story of the Monuments Men, a group of around 360 men (and a few women), whose job it was to track down, conserve and restore the art looted by the Nazis. Not only that, but the Monuments Men, attached to the British and American armies, had to ensure that the Allies did not destroy cultural heritage in Europe. It was in many ways a thankless task, rendered all the more daunting when you learn that the Allied landings in Normandy included just 12 Monuments Men.

Edsel has painstakingly identified some of them. As he says, “Search the leadership rolls of any major US cultural institutions in the 1950s and 1960s and you are almost sure to find a former member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the US army.” After nearly 14 years of research, Edsel has written (with co-author Brett Witter) an authoritative book, Monuments Men, Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. He has also established the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, and is co-producer of a film, The Rape of Europa, an award-winning account of the Nazi pillaging of Europe.

His background, he says, gives him the ability to explain the subject on two levels: he can talk knowledgeably about art and art history to curators and gallery owners, but he can also transmit his passion “to people who thought they didn’t know anything about art. And, besides, who doesn’t love a great John Wayne story — that is what a lot of this is.”

There is certainly an astonishing amount of John Wayne-ism and derring-do on the part of the Monuments Men, all the more so because nearly all of them were middle-aged men who left comfortable jobs and families to enlist — and then found themselves traipsing through bombed-out Europe tracking down elusive paintings or statues.

The work, says Edsel, “allowed society to resume functioning”, because so much of what was rescued by the Monuments Men included city archives and cultural landmarks.

The sheer volume of what the Nazis stole is astonishing and, despite their relentless record-keeping, its scale may never be known. Edsel is unsurprised that art restitution, so long on the back burner, has become such a hot subject in the last decade or so. “There are hundreds and thousands of these works of art, worth billions, which are still missing,” he says.

But there is hope. Thanks to the internet, information can be globally traded and the collapse of Communism has led to the opening of previously unavailable records from the former Soviet Union and their satellites.

Edsel has one extraordinary theory about the Nazi obsession with art. “Had it not been for the attention that Hitler and Goering paid to art, the war would have taken a different path,” he says. What does he mean? “There would not necessarily have been a different outcome, but the war would have been longer.” All the resources, both human and material, which the Nazis devoted to looting European culture, necessarily diverted from the military war machine of Nazi Germany.

Goering, while he was head of the Luftwaffe, paid 21 separate visits to Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum, sifting through likely art treasures. Hitler curated art shows. Other leading Nazis made it a point of honour to build up their own collection of stolen paintings, jewellery or statuary.

During the Nuremberg trials, 39 albums assembled by Alfred Rosenberg were presented as evidence of Nazi looting. Until two years ago, the items, stored in the National Archives in Washington, were believed to represent the totality of the ERR archive.

Two years ago, Edsel was contacted by the Dallas Holocaust Museum. The nephew of a US soldier had called the museum to say he had two volumes of material which his uncle had found on the floor of Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps, the Berghof.

After seven months of research, Edsel came to realise that these two albums were volumes six and eight of the ERR archive, not previously known to exist. And in a piece of serendipity, the very first picture in one of the volumes, Portrait of a Lady, was one of the paintings rescued at the end of the war by Monument Man James Rorimer, one of Edsel’s heroes whom he highlights in the book.

‘Monuments Men’ by Robert M Edsel with Brett Witter is published by Preface at £20

Last updated: 9:17am, August 21 2009