The New York Post recently reported that while conducting research for his book “Rescuing Da Vinci,” Edsel had stumbled upon an archival photo of one of the paintings, “Saint Justa,” which is a 1665 masterpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. The photo showed the painting sitting in a house in Buxheim, Germany, along with other treasures that had been looted by the Nazis.
And in 2006 the same painting appeared to be hanging in Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum. Along with the “Saint Justa’s” companion painting, “Saint Rufina,” which had illegally come into German possession during the war as well, the Post explained.
Officials contacted by Edsel were certainly surprised to learn of the paintings’ potentially shady past, so they allowed Edsel to have a private viewing.
When Edsel flipped over “Saint Justa,” he found the smoking gun — a barely legible code was written on the frame by the Germans. Thus was done so, according to the Post, to catalog what had been looted. The notation read “R1171,” indicating that this was the 1,171st object taken from the Rothschilds, a wealthy Parisian banking family from whom the Nazis had confiscated more than 6,000 valuable pieces of art.
“It was a pretty astonishing moment,” Edsel told the Post.
In the end, the Murillo works may turn out to have been acquired legally. The paintings were acquired by the museum acquired as gifts in 1972 and the Post suggested that they could have been returned to the Rothschilds after the war and then subsequently, and legally, been sold legally by the family. Documentation showing the exact chain of events, however, is missing, according to the Post, so that mystery will remain unsolved at this time.
Even though World War II has long since ended, one battle continues to this day: the fight to find and repatriate stolen art. As the Post explained, hundreds of thousands of works remain missing, and people are still actively looking for them even now, all these years later.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, better known as the Monuments Men, was created in 1943 “to help protect Europe’s cultural bounty during the war,” the Post reported. “The Allied group was a mix of soldiers and commissioned scholars, including museum directors, art historians and architects, who risked life and limb to find and return priceless treasures to their rightful owners.”
Their story is the backbone for “The Monuments Men,” directed by George Clooney and opening Friday. Clooney, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and John Goodman star as the art hunters.
The Nazis looted millions of objects from museums and homes across Europe, and hid the booty in country estates or deep in salt mines to protect them from bombs. According to the Post, Hitler planned to build a grand museum in Linz that would display the plunder.
Before their official mission ended in 1951, the Monuments Men oversaw the return of some 5 million stolen objects to their rightful owners. Many more, however, vanished, presumably making their way home with soldiers or being sold illegally.
As a tribute to the real-life soldiers and in order to continue their work, Edsel founded the Monuments Men Foundation in 2007. The not-for-profit group continues to search for lost works and to educate the public.
“This is about banging the pots and pans to alert people to be looking in their attics and basements,” Edsel says. “These things might have come home with a soldier, sometimes innocently enough.”
Last year, Edsel even helped to recover eight 400-year-old books that had been taken from a Naples library. An American soldier had picked them up as souvenirs and always felt bad about it, so he attempted to give them back.
“He died about two weeks after that,” Edsel told the Post. “It was like he lived long enough to see them returned.”
And more artwork is certainly out there, whether it is ever recovered or not. In a February 2012 bust unrelated to the Monuments Men, “German customs officers stumbled upon a massive stash of some 1,400 works of art, including paintings stolen by the Nazis, hidden in a Munich apartment,” the Post reported.
In related news, New York’s Sotheby’s held a sale January 30 of four works recovered by the Monuments Men.
“Like many of the treasures looted during World War II, the present works came from celebrated European collections and two were even selected by Hitler’s deputy and Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Göring, for his personal collection. The paintings still bear the traces of the Nazi’s collecting and documenting process and the information preserved by the Monuments Men at the time of recovery has helped to restore the history of the works during the war,” Sotheby’s said in a press release.