The students and I are fascinated by the legal and moral issues raised by stolen art objects. Historically I have been most involved in Trevor-Roper’s era i.e the plunder of the Arts in the 17th century: English King Charles I, Gonzaga rulers of Mantua, Spanish King Philip IV, Queen Christina of Sweden, Cardinal Mazarin in Paris, Leopold William in Brussels and other winners and losers.
Recently I became very interested in The Rape of Europa 2008, a film directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen and Nicole Newnham and based on the excellent book of the same name by Lynn H. Nicholas. This film about World War Two specifically paid homage to the Allies' Monuments Men, whose job it was to minimise the damage done by advancing armies and track down stolen works of art. Evacuation of The Louvre and The Hermitage, as seen in the film, was both well organised (by humans) and miraculous.
So I knew a lot about stolen art. But who were these Monuments Men?
Journey of a Bookseller blog discussed The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel. During WW2 a particular individual had felt that art was important and should be preserved. He wasn’t an important military man, and it wasn’t until he met like-minded people that it became possible to develop a small team.
The team gathered in Europe, but didn’t seem to be given much official protection or military funding. In fact The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives “battalion” was hardly known. Eventually 345 men and women from thirteen Allied nations were trying to save art that hadn't been desecrated in the war zones, bringing back any objects that were transportable for preservation purposes. Eventually, they hoped to return the art to the rightful owners, if the works had been stolen from galleries. Or, if the owners had been individual Jewish families, it was probable that they and their children had been exterminated. The problem of locating the rightful owners' heirs, in this case, would be more difficult.
The Clever Pup blog added another important issue in writing about The Monuments Men: motivation. Frequently entering liberated towns ahead of ground troops, Monuments Men worked quickly to assess damage and make temporary repairs to paintings, sculpture and decorative art objects, before moving on through conquered Nazi territory with the Allied Armies. In the last years of the war, these museum directors, curators, art historians and educators tracked and located more than 5 million art and cultural items stolen by the Nazis. They were not soldiers, bombers, pilots, tank drivers or machine gunners! In fact some of The Monuments Men remained in Europe for years after other soldiers were demobilised, to facilitate and supervise the return of stolen works of art.
Appropriately I think, Running Rabbit blog notes that the work of The Monument Men isn't finished yet. By 2009 many of the stolen pieces have not yet been found and many other stolen pieces, located and clearly identified, have still not been returned. If the original owners were gassed or shot in 1939-45, their children are now elderly themselves. The grandchildren or grandnephews and nieces will soon be the only heirs.
Edsel, Robert The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Hachette Books, 2009.
Nicholas, Lynne The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, Vintage, 1995
Trevor-Roper, H Plunder of the Arts in 17th Century, Jarrold, Norwich, 1970.