The greatest art theft in history took place in broad daylight, as bombs fell, tanks rolled, and opposing armies chewed up Europe in a relentless battle that would decide whether the future of Western society belonged to fascism or democracy.

The thieves were brazen, systematic, and meticulously organized. Their plundering went on for years. It may be the only heist in which the criminals exercised complete authority. Their victims were not only denied justice but rather were punished for any interference with the robberies. All because one man wanted to build a museum and his plundering cronies wanted whatever they could get their hands on.

The museum would be called the Fuhrermuseum, to be built in Linz, Austria, hometown to the thief-in-chief, Adolf Hitler. Beginning when Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, and over the course of 12 years, the Nazi thieves collected hundreds of thousands of art works calling it “displaced art” to build the Fuhrer’s museum.

The story of how, in the midst of World War II, some of the mankind’s greatest cultural artifacts were saved by an unlikely band of museum curators, artists, and art historians is the topic of Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Center Street, 2009). This year, Edsell’s book was adapted for the screen by actor-director George Clooney and starred Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett.

Recently, Edsel spoke with City Paper about his book, the movie, and his ongoing passion for bringing to light the work of these dedicated men and women in a time of war. 

Edsel says he discovered the story of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (the official name for the Monuments Men) out of simple curiosity. Having sold off his interests in a successful oil and gas company, he moved to Florence, Italy in 1996. Surrounded by astonishing art in the birthplace of the Renaissance, he began to wonder how any of it could have survived one of the most destructive wars in history. It turned out to be a good question — one for which no one seemed to have an answer.

Edsel began researching and gathering photographs for what would eventually become Rescuing Da Vinci, his first book. When the New York publishing industry decided to take a pass on that book, dismissing the topic as something no one would be interested in, Edsel self-published it. The book, largely made up of photographs Edsel had hunted down, was well-received. Publication of Da Vinci did nothing to diminish Edsel’s enthusiasm for his subject. He kept hunting and discovered art historian Lynn Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, which he helped turn into a documentary. Three years later, Edsel followed up with Monuments Men, which concentrated on the tale of these warrior-scholars who went behind enemy lines to save the stolen art.

Edsel credits George Stout (played by Clooney in the film), with laying the foundation for what would become the Monuments Men. A military veteran, Stout became convinced in the period between the World War I and II that a second helping of conflict was not far off, that “American boys would have to go back to Europe once again. And long before Pearl Harbor, he began to prepare pamphlets on how to preserve cultural artifacts during combat.”

Despite Stout’s serious task at hand, he had a subversive sense of humor. Edsel says,”He’d been in the Army in the First World War, but in the Navy reserve in between the wars. Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was an Army effort all the way. And with the emergency circumstances of trying to get people in uniform quickly, the military figured out it was easier to get people already in the reserves or in another branch transferred rather than bringing someone in who had no military background. So Stout transferred over to the Army. But he always loved the Navy, and you can always spot him in these photos because he’s wearing a jersey or a helmet that’s got an ‘N’ on it — his way of digging at the Army.”

While Edsel’s own digging into the historical record yielded some surprising finds (like the photo albums the Nazis had compiled and used as a sort of shopping list for art plunderers), his research also exposes the very human sacrifices made in the quest to protect our cultural patrimony.

“They volunteered to become a new kind of soldier,” says Edsel, “ones charged with saving and not destroying.” The very public pronouncement by President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Allied forces would take it upon themselves, wherever possible, to safeguard art treasures from the ravages of battle was in itself a sea change in how wars might be conducted.

That change in thinking resonates down to the present day. During the Iraq War, for example, at least some effort was made to preserve ancient Mesopotamian artifacts scattered in museums and public buildings around the battlefields.

“There’s no doubt that this was part of the legacy [of the Monuments Men],” says Edsel. “Cultural treasures are under threat all the time. And they belong to all of us. It’s our responsibility to do what we can do to preserve them for future generations. That’s why they’ve survived.” He points to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by Taliban forces, as another example of the terrible price armed conflict can exact on our shared cultural heritage.

In 2007, Edsel created the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Beyond bringing to light the history of preservation in the Second World War, the organization seeks to spread awareness about the importance of cultural preservation in war time. It’s work that has become Edsel’s passion and transformed his life. His hope is that this passion will transform many other lives as well.