(By Glenda Anderson)
“Ripped From The Headlines and Coming to Your Theater!”
George Clooney’s film, “The Monuments Men,” due for release this December, was inspired by a book, not news headlines. The non-fiction “Monuments Men” by Robert Edsel was also inspired by a book: the award-winning title by Lynn H. Nicholas wherein she details the greatest art treasure theft in the history of mankind.
Edsel’s book focuses on the lives of the few men and women who, attempting to save treasures, risked it all, often following right behind soldiers and tanks. This was in the wake of Flying Fortresses letting loose with incendiary bombs wiping out whole cities filled with citizens, museums, hundreds-years old cathedrals, and war factories manned by starving, tortured Jews and POW’s.
But it is Nicholas’ deeply researched book, beginning with Hitler’s takeover of Germany, that she recounts the whole sordid history of how the Nazi’s arrogant beliefs evolved quickly and disastrously for millions of people and countless cultural treasures representative of history and art.
And now, irony of ironies, “Ripped From the Headlines” surely applies to Clooney’s movie! Just this month, explosive news hit the wires and front pages of newspapers around the world of a discovery in Munich of an insanely huge hidden cache of art treasures. This art once believed to be destroyed during the war, was jammed into a dark garbage-strewn room in the apartment of elderly Cornelius Gurlitt, inheritor of his father’s wealth, a trail of lies and deception.
Only by reading Nicholas’ scholarly thriller does one come to understand how the greatest art heist in history was perpetuated upon museums, art collectors, dealers and ordinary citizens. Nichols lays out the plunder, beginning before Hitler’s onslaught of Europe. This involved the outlawing of “degenerate art,” the removal of Jews from civil laws, hence, the opening of the gates for the Nazi theft of billions of dollars worth of art and gold for personal greed and for the funding of Hitler’s war machine.
Nazis brazenly stole from Jewish homes, hauling off truck-loads of art from Jewish dealers, not just to pay for war, but also to use the gold and jewelry for decorating Nazi homes and lining pockets. The decadent Herman Goering, who stole all he could, also made shopping trips to Paris for jewels and art. Goering, the original shop-til-you drop-guy, could be seen in galleries dressed to kill, rouged, with at least eight fat fingers sporting stolen rings. Jewish fine furs came to ensconce shoulders of wives or mistresses; gold and art hidden away in Swiss banks or estates. If not hung in homes as personal show-off trophies for guests, famous paintings were stashed away, hidden for future use. Some of the greatest paintings, missing and gone forever.
Teeming with personal stories, one of Nicholas’s many fascinating tales is of suave, wealthy Parisian art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Being Jewish and smart, he ran for his life. His apartment soon denuded of hundreds of oils and artifacts; his gallery of Monet’s, Van Gogh’s, Picasso’s, Cezanne’s, crated and carted off for parts in Germany. Unbelievably, the train containing some of them were halted and saved by a French army unit commanded by Rosenberg’s own son, who, upon opening a car, recognized the art from this childhood home.
Up-to-date news out of Germany: one painting from Gurlitt’s secret horde, is an unknown, undocumented painting by Matisse worth millions. Taken from his home by Nazis, it was quickly documented and returned to Rosenberg’s heirs– his granddaughters. Just this year, another Rosenberg-owned Monet in a Paris auction and catalog, was recognized as stolen. The auction halted; the painting returned.
Writing for the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 7, 2013) Lynn Nicholas states that most art historians believed that the Gurlitt collection had been destroyed in the Allied bombing of Dresden. The revelation of this secret horde of stolen art in Munich, she says, is “a secrecy par excellence; the owner of the stash is nowhere to be found, the pictures are at an undisclosed location and no inventory has been provided . . . a most curious case . . . where it has been found out that the younger Gurlitt was able to make a deal with the Flechtheim (Jewish art dealer in war-time Paris) heirs in returning a painting unknown and undocumented in the art world.”
Part of what makes The Rape of Europe so fascinating and relevant today, is how a government can go crazy with arrogance, greed and violence, whereby pulling off massive art thefts, confiscating galleries and homes of Jews. Any dissident was promptly whisked off to work camps or murdered, gassed or starved to death, effectively silencing witnesses. Now, after years of searching for stolen art, whether by Nazis, American soldiers or opportunistic neighbors, any documented work will be confiscated and returned to owners or heirs.
One example was an art exhibition in Paris that hung pieces on loan from Sonja Heine’s museum in Oslo. One was recognized as a Monet previously owned by Paul Rosenberg and seized by Goering; somehow ending up with Sonja Heine. Identified as stolen and documented as Rosenberg’s, the multi-million dollar painting was returned to his granddaughters.
Another fascinating story: the Allies believed that German lookouts were stationed in the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, deciding to bomb the tower to smithereens. They missed. Instead, they blasted to near ruins a far more important art treasure yards away: the Campo Santo, built according to tradition, on soil brought back from the Crusades, a delicate gallery displaying thousands of feet of Gazzoli frescoes.
Reading The Rape of Europa is to feel totally amazed with the destructive results of senseless, morally repugnant men who wreck havoc and war, and to better appreciate our priceless treasures captured and protected by caring, intelligent men and women and governments. This is definitely a must-read!