‘Monuments Men’ recovered art stolen by the Nazis
Author describes WWII heroics; 3 men had ties to Worcester Art Museum
Robert Edsel talks about soldiers who located and saved thousands of works of art stolen from European museums by the Nazis. (T&G Staff/JIM COLLINS)
By Kim Ring TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
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Nearly 65 years after the end of World War II, works of art stolen by the Nazis and numbering in the hundreds of thousands remain missing.
But in the years immediately after the war, 5 million items of cultural significance were returned thanks to the Monuments Men, an obscure group of museum directors, curators and others in the field of art.
They joined the military and were charged with finding missing art, usually stolen by the Nazis but sometimes stashed away for safekeeping by museum curators, and with returning it. Many times they put themselves in peril.
Some of those involved were from Massachusetts, including Lt. Cmdr. Perry Blythe Cott, Lt. Cmdr. George L. Stout and Pfc. Charles H. Sawyer, who all had ties to the Worcester Art Museum. Yesterday, members of the Stephen Salisbury Society heard of their exploits from author Robert M. Edsel.
Mr. Edsel explained that after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a telegram was sent to museums around the country notifying them of an emergency meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They would discuss plans to save culturally important items, including artwork.
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program was soon born.
Adolf Hitler, who had hoped to become an artist or an architect, made lists of artwork he wanted displayed in the Fuhrermuseum he planned to build in his home town. He kept log books of the artwork he had stolen or bought, as well.
During yesterday’s presentation, Mr. Edsel, who wrote, “Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” showed slides depicting the discovery of artwork stashed in a copper mine.
The group also found gold, currency, and paintings by Rembrandt, da Vinci and Manet inside a salt mine. The works were returned.
At most, there were 350 Monuments Men and women from 13 countries. When other troops were leaving after the war, their work was continuing at full speed. They returned home in 1951.
Most people have never heard of the group, and it’s something that bothered Mr. Edsel. After he learned of their sacrifices, he set about making sure their story was told. He developed the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which works to find members of the group and to find missing works so they can be returned.
The foundation recently helped return to Germany the Gemaldegalerie Linz Album XIII, one of Hitler’s valued books in which he listed artwork he possessed.
It was, like many items, taken by a soldier as a souvenir. When he learned it was significant, he worked with the Monuments Men to return it.
The album is one of 31 believed kept by Hitler. Of those, 19 are believed to have survived the war and others are believed to have been destroyed, according to the Monuments Men newsletter.
Mr. Edsel said he believes we are entering a time in which some of the missing items may surface.
As soldiers from that era die and their families discover items they may have brought back from the war, he is hopeful they will contact the group and try to return the items to their rightful owners.
He said he hopes the public speaking he does, his book and the work of the remaining Monuments Men will encourage young people to have an interest in hearing the stories of the Monuments Men — and women. He said they may be encouraged to take a second look at the things their grandparents have and ask about them.
Items taken can never be sold, he explained, and as they are passed from generation to generation, their significance may be overlooked.
Those interested in learning more about the Monuments Men can visit www.monumentsmenfoundation.org.