On 16 February 1945, workers manoeuvre the statue of Cosimo di Medici and his horse, by Giambologna, back into position in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence.
DALLAS - Robert Edsel is a man with little time to spare. The first half of our interview takes place in his black BMW, as he whisks me from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport back to his office in Dallas’ Design District, where we have a sandwich and continue chatting before Edsel returns to DFW to catch a flight of his own – one of many in his near future.
“I’m heading to Rome, for the launch of The Monuments Men in Italian,” he says, referring to his 2009 book and publishing phenomenon, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. “Then I go on to Croatia for the publication there, which I believe will be the 27th or 28th language it has been translated into."
“After that I will head to Berlin for the German launch, and to spend a few days on set.” The “set” to which he refers is the elaborate sound stage just built for the film adaptation of The Monuments Men – the director, producer, screenwriter and star of which is George Clooney. Its all-star ensemble cast includes Daniel Craig, Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett.
But Edsel can hardly stop to enjoy the moment. This May will see the publication of his new book, Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures.
Robert Edsel. PHOTO: © JIMMY BRUCH.
His success is all the more extraordinary considering his background, which includes no education in art history.
“This was about my fourth career,” says Edsel, a fit and energetic 57-year- old gentleman.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, he was brought up in Dallas, where his father was a stockbroker. After an early career as a tennis player, he stumbled into a job in the oil and gas exploration field. After pioneering new techniques in horizontal drilling, he built a highly successful company, which he sold at age 39, in the mid-1990s.
In the summer of 1996 he moved to Europe. “I was curious about other things,” he explains. With no set plans, he landed in Rome in August. Not the best time to enjoy the Eternal City, he quickly learned. Finding a cooler perch in a villa outside Florence, he decided this was a fine place to start learning about art. Aided by a professor he hired as a tutor, Edsel immersed himself in the city’s rich cultural treasures.
“Then one day I was walking across the Ponte Vecchio, and this idea came to me – how was it that many of the cities of Europe were practically blown to bits during WWII, but the works of art survived? Who were the people who saved them?”
Monuments Officer Lieutenant Fred Hartt, standing next to his jeep, “Lucky 13.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF FREDERICK HARTT PAPERS, NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON D.C., GALLERY ARCHIVES.
To his surprise, even eminent art professionals could not answer his question, which only fuelled Edsel’s obsession to find an answer.
“I’m a sponge,” he says. “I learned that there was this group of officers, known as Monuments Men – they served in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA) of the Allied Forces. There were about 60 of them serving in Europe by the end of combat.
“They were a new kind of soldier. But no one really knew the big picture about them. A couple of them had written memoirs just after the war, but I looked at them, and at what they did with the benefit of 60 years hindsight, from 30,000 feet up, as it were. And I realised, this is the most exciting story in the world. It was the biggest treasure hunt in the world, the biggest theft in modern times, maybe ever. It is a great American story and a great example of reality being more interesting than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up.”
But Edsel’s initial efforts to find a publisher for a book he wanted to produce on the topic hit a brick wall. “They all said, it’s been done, nobody cares about this.”
Undaunted, he decided to self-publish a photographic coffee table book, Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art, America and Her Allies Recovered It. Soon after it appeared in 2006, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications ran major features on the book, turning it into a hit.
The Monuments Men producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov with Robert Edsel (centre).
Emboldened by the book’s success, Edsel began research on a thorough history of the Monuments Men. “I started to beat the bushes to find every living Monuments Man I could. Eventually I found seventeen of them, and learned their stories. What really brought their saga to life for me were the letters they had written home, which they shared with me. I then saw the incredible human interest side of this. Most of them during the war were middle-aged men; many of them had wives and kids back home. They were not the most athletic group."
"They were very diverse. One of them was Lincoln Kirstein, an openly gay, manic-depressive cultural impresario. His partner was a guy from a dirt-poor family in Alabama who didn’t know anything about art. What an odd couple they were.
“But these guys realised the US was at risk of winning the war but destroying Western Civilisation, and they came up with a plan to save it.”
Monuments Men focused on the action that transpired in Northern Europe where, as Edsel documented, the Nazi regime had developed a highly methodical and systematic selection process as they seized art from both public and private collections. “During the Nuremberg Trials, among the evidence presented were 39 leather-bound volumes with photos and meticulous descriptions of stolen works of art. These were catalogues presented to the Fuhrer.”
In Italy, by contrast, the situation was much more disorganised, though no less dire, as Edsel recounts in Saving Italy: “Italy was an ally of Nazi Germany for three years. After the Italians switched sides, the Germans, as they fled the country, just took what they could. But they did end up taking around 800 highly important works that had been stolen from the museums of Florence and stored in houses in the area.”
In 2007, Edsel founded a charitable organisation, the Monuments Men Foundation, to further preserve the legacy of these unique soldiers and to help complete their mission. “There are still thousands of missing works of art. Some of them might have been taken home by soldiers as souvenirs. As veterans die, things are going to be coming out of attics, basements and safe deposit boxes all over the world. We are working to inform people who to contact when they find something.”
The upcoming release of The Monuments Men film in December will do much to further the cause, Edsel believes. “No matter how good a book you write, you can’t reach the number of people you can with a movie. This film will help flush out works of art. Previously, people might not have known what to do if they found something. But they will now.”
Plus, he adds, hanging out on set with George Clooney was not so bad, either.
James Reginato is a writer-at-large for Vanity Fair.
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