by Lori Verderame
During the same week when President Barack Obama slighted those of us who pursued degrees in art history, a Hollywood movie was unveiled celebrating those art historians and curators who saved the world's treasures during World War II. George Clooney's The Monuments Men follows the art historians and object experts who were given the task of saving the world’s cultural treasures from the Nazis during World War II. On the big screen, these figures who study the impact of such cultural relics and work to save these objects are heralded as heroes and held in high esteem for the great lengths they went to in order to secure cultural relics and fine art from destruction.
The story of the recovery of some of the world’s greatest art masterpieces and cultural treasures looted by the Nazis has created quite a buzz following its Berlin film premiere. At my more than 150 art and antique appraisal events, regular folks bring me objects to appraise because they know they will hear the real scoop from me. I have appraised more than my fair share of objects from World War II with varying levels of confirmed provenance or ownership. It is vital that people realize that when searching through their attics or basements that an object that they find may be of cultural significance and should be properly considered, appraised, and reviewed. It is the question of ownership during the tumultuous period of the Second World War that provides the backdrop for the new film. This ownership question should be considered with the objects found and traded by people today, too.
In the new film, George Clooney and film producer Robert Edsel tell the story of the military men and women who worked in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during World War II. The background information for the movie came from various sources including a catalogue of the art collection of Nazi leader, Hermann Goering, a biographical account of a curator and registrar from the Jeu de Paume Museum in occupied Paris named Rose Valland, the life of Metropolitan Museum of Art director James Rorimer during the war, and other little known and rarely discussed war-time documents.
From 1933 to 1945, the Nazis seized and destroyed numerous works of art and antique treasures. After the Nazi surrender, approximately 5 million objects were returned to their home countries or rightful owners thanks to the work of the Monuments recovery program members from 13 nations worldwide. Some reports indicate that approximately 750,000 more pieces of art have yet to be recovered or returned.
The Monuments Men were volunteers who worked as curators and artists to serve in an effort to save these cultural treasures. Their job was to save as much of the culture of Europe during the war as possible. This unlikely World War II task force was put together by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Asked to rescue art masterpieces from the Nazi thieves based in Germany, these art historians worked to save objects that highlighted 1000 years of cultural information in the form of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, architecture, and cultural objects. Art historians were called in to find and protect mankind’s artistic achievements. Based on Edsel’s 2009 self-published book, "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History", the film has created quite a stir. In recent years, we have seen the same damage take place concerning the cultural objects of the Middle Eastern sites like the damage and looting to the Iraqi museum in 2003.
The Monuments Men movie gives rise to new information about the special operation groups working during the Second World War. The movie also sheds light on Adolf Hitler’s background as a young artist, his Degenerate art project which condemned many works of modern art, and his interest in amassing works of art for his private museum. Hitler was an artist in his own right painting traditional landscapes of his Austrian hometown as a young man. When he came to power, he spearheaded the Nazi effort to remove more than 15,000 works of modern art from Germany’s museums by artists such as Marc Chagall, Kurt Schwitters, and others,. He put these works on display labeled as Degenerate art. This art was deemed unacceptable to Nazi thought and teachings. Six hundred fifty works were taken from more than 30 museums and put on display to increase public revulsion for this modern art that was said to be contaminating German culture. The exhibition debuted in Munich and traveled to cities in Germany and Austria and it was seen by nearly 3 million viewers. Hitler was an advocate of traditional, academic art and did not appreciate modernism in its many forms.
During the early years of World War II, Hitler proposed the project of constructing a museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. Hitler had put together albums filled with pictures of famous works of art that he wanted included in his “Fuehrermuseum” after the Axis powers won the war. The album was part of a series of 31 similar books documenting works of art that would eventually end up on display in the Linz museum. One of the paintings pictured in the album destined for Hitler’s Linz museum was Plague in Florence by Hans Makart which was a gift that Hitler received from Mussolini. Hitler was known to display his own works of art alongside great works of German art such as Adolf von Menzel’s portrait of Frederick the Great in his Munich office. This album was removed from Hitler’s home near Berchtesgaden, Germany by a US serviceman as a souvenir at the end of the war in Europe. These are the types of objects that I regularly appraise at my appraisal events worldwide at numerous venues.
Some of the more than 36,000 paintings that were recovered by the Monuments Men were found, returned to their rightful owners, and now have come to reside in the world’s museums or have legitimately come on the market.
For instance, two 18th Century French paintings by Jean Baptiste Pater who worked alongside the court painters of King Louis XV entitled The Musician and Landscape with Roses were once in Hermann Goering’s personal collection.Originally taken from the Baron James Mayer de Rothschild in Paris during the war, circa 1939-40, they were returned to the Rothschild family and will be sold as a pair with an estimated value of $500,000 at Sotheby’s in conjunction with the opening of the Clooney/Damon movie. The Monuments Men also saved a famous painting by artist Francesco Guardi of the piazzetta of Venice looking towards San Giorgio Maggiore and other important Italian, French, and German works of art. The paintings still tell their own story via markings on the paintings’ age-old canvases and stretchers. The markings indicate the Nazi cataloguing system as well as the later numbering system used by the Monuments service men and women who were colleagues with the military police as they discovered the looted works of fine art and tried to return them to the art dealers, Jewish families, and others who owned them before the war.The film and related content from the Monuments Men website will highlight this interesting historical period and feature the trained men and women who understand that preserving objects of world history and culture is certainly worth the sacrifice.
Celebrity Ph.D. antiques appraiser, Dr. Lori hosts antiques appraisal events worldwide.Dr. Lori is the star appraiser on Discovery channel’s hit TV show, Auction Kings. Visit DrLoriV.com, Facebook.com/DoctorLori, Lori Verderame on Google+ or call (888) 431-1010.