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Smithsonian exhibit tells the real story of Monuments men and women

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'MONUMENTS MEN: On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942-1946'

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The real story behind "The Monuments Men", who protected and rescued European art during World War Two, is revealed in an intriguing Smithsonian exhibit that opened the same day as the George Clooney movie.

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"MONUMENTS MEN: On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942-1946", a free exhibit at the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, gives unique insight into what's called the greatest treasure hunt in history.

The Monuments Men and women are estimated to have recovered more than five million artistic and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. German forces had control of one-fifth of all Western art by the end of the war, according to "Time" and other news reports.

"It's one of the great stories of World War Two and American history -- and a great spy story," said Kate Haw, director of the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art (SAAA).

In this great story of the Monuments Men, "women played essential roles," the director told me. "The story cannot be told without also talking about the crucial role women played in the mission."

Although "the vast majority of the Monuments Men (the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section), especially those who were sent to the front lines and behind enemy lines, were men -- women were doing equally heroic work," Haw explained. By the end of World War Two, the 300-strong unit had "quite a number of women".

Rose Valland, whose film character Claire Simone is portrayed by Cate Blanchett, risked her life to rescue art stolen by the Nazis.

Valland was an art historian at Paris' Jeu de Paume Museum, one of many places where Nazis stored plundered art. Valland spied on the Nazis, who did not realize that she spoke German. She kept meticulous notes, lists, photographs of stolen artwork and where they were hidden in castles, salt mines, and churches in German-occupied countries.

One showcase in the exhibit focuses on Valland and the key information she provided to Monuments Man James J. Rorimer, a medieval art expert from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. His character, renamed James Granger in the movie, is portrayed by Matt Damon.

In the original handwritten draft of Rorimer's memoir, he recounts, "I...was certain that Rose Valland could tell more than we could learn elsewhere if she only would." After finally coming to trust Rorimer, she gave him a photo of a Bavarian castle, one of several palaces that hid thousands of masterworks looted from France. The wrinkled photo of "Mad" King Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle rests beside the memoir manuscript.

"'I count on you to get there and save our treasures before the Nazis can destroy them. Take my advice. What I tell you is based on more than a woman’s intuition,'" Rorimer quotes Valland in his memoir "Safe-keeping".

A photo in another case shows Monuments officials Valland and Edith Standen flanking antique armor and holding paintings and sculpture to be returned to France in 1946. WAC Captain Standen supervised the organization, research and ultimate restitution of thousands of these pilfered works.

Standen had dug up an ancient bronze cannon with her bare hands. The Nazis had stolen it in Paris, and had buried it in Stuttgart.

The exhibit's photos, maps, memorabilia, and other items document the massive looting -- ranging from Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" (the Bruges Madonna), to a casket containing the remains of Frederick the Great, to gold bars worth billions of dollars:

  • A "partial inventory" of works stolen for the personal collection of Hermann Goering, Hitler's second in command, runs 71 pages (in tiny handwriting). It includes paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Dürer, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, among other masters. These more than 1,000 items -- valued at $200 million in 1945 -- were recovered by the Monuments unit.
  • Many of the photos show masterpieces Hitler had selected for his planned museum glorifying him and the Nazi empire in his hometown of Linz, Austria. This "mother lode" was hidden in the Altaussee, Austria salt mines. (The National Archives is displaying one of these "Hitler Albums" that lists the "best of looted art" through Feb. 19.)
  • Other items feature key Monuments Men including George "Ole Pops" Stout, an art conservator and instructor at Harvard's Fogg Museum. Click here to hear him describe conditions in the salt mines.
  • Stout and fellow Monuments Man, sculptor Walker Hancock, even went behind enemy lines, under artillery fire, to reach a mine with hidden treasures from an Aachen, Germany church. These included the Virgin Mary's robe, a bust of Charlemagne, and paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens. Photos show bomb damage of this church and others.
  • Through various letters, these men really come alive. Stout writes modestly to his wife about his daring efforts, "...I have felt better perhaps because of the satisfaction of getting something done..."

George Clooney plays the Stout character, renamed Frank Stokes -- not "Ole Pops" although he's older than most members of the unit. Clooney also directed and co-wrote the film, based on Robert M. Edsel's book,"The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History".

The hunt goes on. The latest such discovery occurred in February and last November. Some 1,400 looted masterpieces by Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall, and many German expressionists, valued at one billion Euros (about $1.37 billion), were found amid trash in a Munich apartment last November. It was the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who dealt in stolen art with Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.

In February, an additional 60 Nazi-looted artworks were found stashed in Cornelius Gurlitt's Salzburg, Austria home, according to Austrian news reports.

Haw noted that Nazis had seized most artworks from Jews. "Jewish families suffered greatly in many, many ways, including having their precious artworks stolen before being killed," she told me.

"I hope the film will bring renewed attention and we'll see more great research into the theft, recovery, and restitution of the artworks," Haw continued.

The SAAA is the primary source for researching provenance, or ownership, of artworks during and after World War Two, and is used by museums around the world.

She also hopes that the film "sparks people's interest in learning the true story."

An even greater hope is for the film to "give people an understanding of how important art is for culture and for identity," the SAAA director concluded.

Other free exhibits related to these heroic men and women are being held at additional Washington institutions that also played major roles in this effort:

For more info: "MONUMENTS MEN: On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942-1946", Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, www.aaa.si.edu, Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, 8th and F Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-633-7940. Free. Feb. 7-Apr. 20. Gallery talks about the exhibition March 13 and 28 at 1 P.M. Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org, 866-WWII-ART.

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