Robert Edsel shares the heroism of World War II treasure rescuers

by Erin Dahl,

“Be careful about being curious. It will get you into trouble.”

Robert Edsel speaks these words from experience. 

After he developed a voracious reading habit in the 1990s, Edsel’s interests in World War II, art and architecture collided. The result was one burning question no one could answer: How had so many great works of art survived the perils of World War II?

So, Edsel launched an investigation that led to the publication of several best-selling books, a motion picture starring George Clooney and his founding of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. 

As part of Willamette University’s Atkinson Lecture Series, Edsel shared stories of the Monuments Men — the 345 men and women from 14 countries who served in the Allied armies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section during World War II. The free event on Oct. 15 at the Elsinore Theater was organized in partnership with Willamette’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

“These men and women would never have been drafted. Their average age was 40, and many had families,” said Edsel, a former oil businessman. “Yet they walked away from all of that to do something notable and necessary.”

Recognizing Heroes

When Hitler’s armies occupied Italy in 1943, they seized Renaissance paintings, Roman antiquities and other rare and precious works representing the best of Western civilization.

The Monuments Men — many of them museum directors, curators, artists and art historians who volunteered for the program — worked to retrieve these masterpieces. In what’s been called the greatest treasure hunt in history, they braved the front lines and entered liberated towns across Europe to track, locate and recover more than five million artistic and cultural items.

During his lecture, Edsel revealed how “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci  survived a bombing. He shared the story of two Monuments Men, artist Deane Keller and scholar Fred Hartt, who hunted for works by Donatello, Titian, Michelangelo and Botticelli.

He also discussed why the men and women from this famed unit are being honored later this month with the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian award in the United States.

“We’re so proud about this, and so excited,” he said, choked up with emotion. “It’s just hard for me to express what it means to us, having labored so much for these men and women.” 

Repeating History

Edsel spoke in Salem five years ago at the request of John Olbrantz, director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

That talk centered on the brave men and women in northern Europe who risked their lives to rescue important artwork. For his second lecture, Edsel picked up where he left off, this time focusing on acts of heroism in southern Europe.

For Olbrantz, Edsel’s work is nothing short of extraordinary — and it remains vitally important. Long after the end of World War II, rare monuments, works of art and other objects are still being destroyed or stolen as acts of war or cultural cleansing. Both Olbrantz and Edsel hope that the original Monuments Men inspire others to do their part to save the treasures that ISIS and other terrorists are destroying throughout the Middle East.

As Olbrantz says, “I believe our future as a civilization and as a human race depends on it.”