Art Reflects Life: “Monuments Men” to Recent Munich Art Loot Discovery

(Left) A still from the movie Monuments Men and (Right) The Munich apartment where the billion-dollar art stash was discovered.
(Left) A still from the movie Monuments Men and (Right) The Munich apartment where the billion-dollar art stash was discovered.

It is the prime example of art imitating life, or vice versa — the recent discovery of about 1,400 art masterpieces among rotten foods in a Munich flat looked like a scene right out of George Clooney’s upcoming movie, Monuments Men.

In Art, In Life

As US cinemas show trailers of the WWII action-thriller which centers on an American Army unit given the responsibility of salvaging priceless art treasures seized by the Nazis, the discovery of perhaps the biggest collection of stolen art pieces in an apartment in Munich uncovered since that unit disbanded has made it to the headlines in various news outlets.

The film, with an all-star cast and directed by Clooney himself, tells the extraordinary story of how the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) crew put up by US in 1943 located and recovered artworks taken by the Nazis throughout Europe as WWII raged on and saved them from being looted by the encroaching Allied troops as well.

Simultaneously, reports about the discovery of what is believed as a billion-dollar stash of art masterpieces hidden among rotting foods in a Munich flat broke out in various news portals and even newspapers stirring a great controversy that had everyone talking especially art enthusiasts and collectors. How the apartment’s owner, the son of the Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, managed to keep this great horde for so many years still evades the minds of those investigating the case. New York Times, reporting about the case last November 5, had even quoted California professor Jonathan Petropolous as saying:

“[this discovery] represented the most important discovery of looted art since the Allies discovered the hordes in the salt mines and the castles.”

Most of the discoveries he meant in his statement resulted from the exploits of the unit depicted in Clooney’s movie Monuments Men.

The Movie

Adapted from a 2009 book authored by Robert Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, the film boasts of a star-studded acting pack which includes Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin, George Clooney as well as others.

The movie would have been “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “James Bond” had Daniel Craig, who had been playing 007 since 2006, pushed through playing the character of James Rorimer, a curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York who was part of the team.

However, it was announced March this year that the British actor would be replaced by Matt Damon, a move dubbed by Hollywood reporters as “Jason Bourne replaces James Bond”.

It was Damon’s character, Rorimer, who located French curator Rose Vallard, played by Australian actress Cate Blanchett. She helped the Nazis document their loots but secretly worked for the Resistance and aided Rorimer and his team their stolen art recovery efforts.

Nevertheless, days before news about the Munich horde came out, George Clooney announced that the Monuments Men premiere would be moved from December 18 to February 7. This notice dampened the hopefuls who thought it would be considered for this year’s Oscars.

Had it been released on its original showing date, it would also have benefited greatly from the torrent of publicity casued by the controversy brought about by the recent Munich art stash discovery.

Clooney pointed at insufficient manpower and lack of time to ensure the movie doesn’t come out “chessy” as the reasons behind the move.

“All we’ve ever said, from the very beginning, is that we wanted to make a commercial, non-cynical piece of entertainment,” he stated.

The Real Monuments Men

The real-life Monuments Men was a band of the most unlikely war heroes – a group comprised of the best art experts and curators. They traversed through Europe’s battlefields just so they could recover the Nazis’ stolen art masterpieces.

After the war, most of the group’s members went on to become directors, some even founders, of some of America’s most well-known cultural organizations. Example is Lincoln Kirstein, a Jewish member of the group, who established New York City Ballet.

Two Monuments Men members died in action – American scholar and architect Captain Walter Huchthausen who was connected to the US 9th Army and British scholar Major Ronald Edmund Balfour connected with the 2nd Canadian Army.

The author of the book where George Clooney based his movie, 57-year-old oil industry businessman Robert Edsel, developed an interest on the looted artworks of the Nazis 15 years ago while he took his residence in Europe. He co-produced a movie in 2006 which detailed how the Nazis plundered European art, The Rape of Europa. This said film traced the course of what happened the Golden Portrait, a famous piece of Austrian symbolist painter Gustave Klimt, which was seized by the Nazis in Austria, restored to its rightful Jewish heirs after a long battle in court and ultimately bought by Ronald Lauder, Jewish leader and businessman,  for a reported amount of $135 million in 2006. The said masterpiece is currently displayed in Lauder’s Neue Gallerie in Manhattan.

Edsel put up the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art in 2007. The organization is devoted to the legacy left by the WWII unit as well as the continuing investigation being done on the art pieces that until now are still missing. Just last year, Edsel presented to the US National Archives two Nazi catalogs of stolen art that had been given to Hitler as birthday presents. These documents had been taken as mementos of US soldiers who were assigned close to Hitler’s Bavarian retreat in Berchtesgaden but were eventually turned over to Edsel’s Monuments Men organization 50 years later.

– Haaretz reports

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE