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Saving Art From War: The Monuments Men

They were a group of soldiers with something in common — a knowledge of art and how to preserve it.

On Monday's Up to Date, we talk about the Monuments Men, a special division from the Allied forces during World War II who braved the battlefields to save priceless art and architecture from the ravages of war.

After the war, the Monuments Men returned to the art world, with some of them landing at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Their story will grace the silver screen this weekend.

"They, like the other World War II veterans, didn't come home and bang their chests about what they'd done," explained Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. "There are only five still living and they realize now that was a mistake. That it was something important to be talked about, and so, fortunately, now their day is coming."

Watch a trailer of the film:


  • Robert Edsel, author of The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
  • JuliánZugazagoitia, director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
  • MacKenzie Mallon, a researcher in the European Painting & Sculpture department of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art


On becoming "art detectives"

Robert Edsel: Their work began not as the art detectives that we end up knowing them best for, but as cultural preservation officers. This was a division that George Stout, who was a pioneer in the development of conservation of works of art, and old enough to have seen military service the last year of World War I, developed in between the two wars...

So the initial efforts of the Monuments officers, including Paul Gardner in Italy (which is a story I tell in my most recent book, Saving Italy), was to serve and to try to steer Allied bombing away from churches and sacred monuments - hence the name Monuments Men - and, once on the ground, effect temporary repairs to the churches and other historic structures...

The idea of becoming these art detectives was something that evolved as they realized the extent and premeditated nature of the Nazi looting. And their effort really was random, it was a matter of being resourceful and asking a thousand times of many different people: "Where are these works of art?" "What clues do you have?" And then, assembling them, the good scholars and students that they were.

And, of course, it led in the final days of the war, the last two months of the war, in April and May 1945, to the discovery of almost 2,000 hiding places – salt mines, caves, and castles – containing millions of cultural objects stolen by the Nazis.

On displaying an artwork retrieved from the salt mines

Julián Zugazagoitia: Our first two directors, Paul Gardner and Laurence Sickman, were heavily involved – one in Europe, the other one more in the Pacific. But both were of this ilk, these very important humanists that were saving the cultural heritage.

Credit Courtesy: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
Nicolas de Largillière, French ,1656-1746. 'Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland,' ca. 1714-1715. Oil on canvas.

One of our greatest pieces of art (is) Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, by Nicolas de Largilliere. It's a beautiful 18th century portrait of the king of Poland in full regalia, overlooking the ruins of a city that he might be devastating or conquering. So it was fitting that this work might be pre-disposed being in the collection of Hitler, in the plundering.

Now, the story of this painting is amazing, also, because it was saved by the Monuments Men. It was given back to its original family, de Rothschild, who subsequently sold it to an art dealer in New York. And that art dealer called our curator, our first curator of European art, Patrick Kelleher, who, he himself, had been in the salt mines rescuing these works of art. So, full circle, he is offered this painting and gets it for the Nelson-Atkins. So, imagine, the arc.

And thanks to the visibility, thanks to the attention this story is getting…the wife of the son of George Stout – the character that is going to be played in the movie by George Clooney - lives in Kansas City. Again, all this serendipity. And (he) brought us the other day the notes that Mr. Stout, George Stout, had – and there you see the salt mine where this painting was hidden.

So many connections and such beautiful stories to be told.

On the experiences of Monuments Men with ties to Kansas City

MacKenzie Mallon: In my personal research on the Nelson-Atkins’ Monuments Men, I find Paul Gardner to be fascinating. He was extremely courageous, lots of harrowing experiences...

He hit the ground running. He arrived in Naples (Italy) in October 1943. The city was devastated and he really had to get started right away evaluating the monuments there.

I think the best story is that in a small, hilltop town near Naples, he knew there was a private collection there. He knew it was important, he needed to check on it. He found a military policeman to escort him. They literally crawled on their hands and knees up this hill, shells falling all around them, to get to the top. And when he got there, he found crates of the artworks – some of them had been broken open by the Nazis and some of the best things had been taken. But he was able to recover a Manet and an important altarpiece.

I think the heroism of some of these men has been the most interesting aspect to me.

All for the sake of art. They were willing to lay down their lives because they knew the importance of the cultural heritage of Europe not just to the Europeans, but to the world.

Curators from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will talk about the truth & fiction of the film, The Monuments Men at two 7 p.m. screenings February 7 and 8, 2014, at The Legends Stadium 14 Theater in Kansas City, Kan.

A display of archival materials, including postcards, newspaper clippings, and biographies of Monuments Men, will be on view in the Bloch Lobby at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, February 5 - March 9, 2014.

When I host Up To Date each morning at 9 a.m., my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. My email is steve@kcur.org.
Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.