It’s called the greatest theft in history: art and cultural property looted from an entire continent and stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
The treasure hunt to recover those works of art continues today, and the effort is documented on the show 'Hunting Nazi Treasure,' which airs on Discovery’s American Heroes Channel.
“A team of investigators is opening up cold case files of Nazi plunder still missing today,” said the announcer in the television show’s open.
“We’re talking about things that are worth tens of millions of dollars,” said Robert Edsel, the executive producer of the show and its senior art expert.
At Edsel’s office in Dallas’ Design District, he reminded us of the history.
“At the start of World War II, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis perpetuated what was the greatest theft in history: a pre-meditated theft with lists of works of art in these countries they were invading that they intended on stealing that had been assembled before the invasions,” Edsel said.
To try and save those cultural treasures from the destructiveness of war, President Theodore Roosevelt created a group called the Monuments Men.
“The Monuments Men were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists themselves,” Edsel said.
In all, there were more than 340 men and women from 14 countries working as detectives—and they were busy.
“By the time they came home in 1951, some six years after the end of the war, they had overseen the return of more than four million stolen objects to the countries in which they were taken,” Edsel said.
But their work went largely unrecognized by the public, so Robert wrote a book about them, which is fittingly titled, The Monuments Men. His book inspired a movie by George Clooney.
“And I spent a week with him every day at his office with he and his partner Grant Heslov talking about things that weren’t in the book, the stories that I had heard,” Edsel said.
In 2014, that movie was released.
“If you destroy an entire generation of people’s culture, it’s as if they never existed,” Clooney said in 'The Monuments Men' movie. “That’s what Hitler wants, and it’s the one thing we can’t allow.”
That film, with its A-list cast, was shown in around 100 countries — bringing attention and honor to the original Monuments Men.
“We still have six of the Monuments Men and women still living, out of the 21 that I met in the course of my career over the last 20 years,” Edsel said.
The youngest is Harry Ettlinger. He was German born and of Jewish faith, and his picture as a young man standing to the right of a recovered Rembrandt self-portrait hangs in Edsel’s office.
“Harry was 19 years old,” Edsel said while looking at the picture. “He went underground in the salt mine in Heilbronn to discover tens of thousands of works of art from German museums that had been hidden there to keep them safe from Allied bombing.”
After 'The Monuments Men' film was released, Harry posed for a picture with Robert and the cast in Milan: bookended by George Clooney and Matt Damon, with Bill Murray and John Goodman in the middle. Behind them, is Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Last Supper.'
“It was a great moment,” Edsel said. “Everybody, I think, felt so proud about their involvement in this film and having a chance to tell this untold story of World War II.”
And their story of recovering art is still being written.
“Sometimes things come in like this painting,” Edsel said while holding up a piece of art in his office.
With help from the public over the last 10 years, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which Robert founded, has returned more than 30 items of cultural property.
“They’re always priceless to the family, or the church, or the museum that are going to get them back because they are a huge part of their history,” Edsel said.
Robert’s team is honoring the Monuments Men and women by continuing their work today, by searching for the hundreds of thousands of items still missing after World War II.
Edsel says that if your family has a work of art, a book, or documents that you think might have been stolen during World War II, he asks that you call the Monuments Men Foundation hotline at 1-866-WWII-ART (1-866-994-4278) or you can go to their MonumentsMenFoundation.org.
The foundation can help you return it to the rightful owner.