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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Treasure hunt

Deal the cards, partner March 26, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.


It's been a decade, maybe longer, since somebody put in our hands a paperback edition of "The Monuments Men." It's been so long that we can't find it. Maybe somebody borrowed it. If we don't find it soon, we're going to have to buy another copy.

It's nothing like the movie. The movie and the book have about one thing in common: the title. And as much as we enjoyed the movie, the book is better. It's non-fiction, but reads like a fast-paced spy novel.

Robert Edsel's book takes readers back to the tail end of the Second World Catastrophe, as the Allies closed in on Germany. Many know that the Nazis looted much of Europe during World War II. Fewer people know that a few hundred Allied troops were given the mission of getting back all that loot, if they could.

The troops faced the enemy, of course, and the Nazis were willing to destroy priceless works of art (not to mention priceless works of life) before allowing paintings and sculptures and buildings to be taken by the Allies. And later returned to their rightful owners.

The Nazis had planned for a grand museum for the Fuehrer. Artwork from around the continent was to be featured. Reichsmarschall and Gestapo founder Hermann Goering oversaw much of the project. As the war went against the Nazis and the Allies closed in, the Nazis stacked the art in moldy caves or rural homes and in some cases gave orders that the stash be destroyed--blown to the sky--if the Allies got close.

The Monuments Men also faced another problem: Their own armies.

Imagine going up to an American army colonel in the middle of a fire fight; he's ordering men here and ammo there and getting casualty reports from the front lines, if there are lines. In the middle of the smoke and artillery fire and planes overhead he gives you the two minutes you've requested. And you ask him, sir, not to fire on that church up ahead again. The one with the Nazi machine gun in the window. The church is a monument, and has centuries-old fresco-covered walls that need to be preserved.

Now imagine being thrown out of the tent with obscenities that may still be hovering over the skies of Italy today. That's what many of the Monuments Men faced. Not to mention mold, thieves, water damage, the lack of funding, fire and falling Allied bombs and Axis artillery.

The movie was okay. It's worth the 90 minutes just to see Bill Murray and Bob Balaban steal the show. But the book gives the reader the bigger view. And the bigger problems.

Now jump ahead nearly 80 years.

Those who read the replica edition of this newspaper might have noticed the extra, just the other day, on the continuing search for stolen loot from WWII. And the ongoing legacy of the Monuments Men.

A group/foundation/collection of guiding lights continuing the work of that small Allied unit haven't given up yet. All these years later, they're still trying to return paintings, sculptures and other artworks to the owners or their heirs/estates.

This time, by using cards. Playing cards. As in a deck of them.

The military has sometimes printed decks of cards featuring enemy mugshots on each card, so soldiers playing a hand (or two) during downtime could memorize the faces. Some of us are old enough to remember when decks of cards around the barracks featured silhouettes of enemy and friendly tanks and planes.

The modern Monuments People (for there are women now) and its foundation have created decks of cards featuring long-lost artworks that they believe are still intact. And out there. Somewhere.

"What is needed is to raise awareness about what is missing," said Anna Bottinelli, the foundation's president. "Because you might know of a friend who has a beautiful painting on the wall and you don't even question that that painting belongs to someone else."

The group offers rewards up to $25,000 for information. Missing works includes those by Vincent van Gogh, Caravaggio and Claude Monet.

"Many of these have resurfaced in the recent past--even as late as 2008--in auctions," Bottinelli said. And who knows how many were brought "home" in 1944-45-46 by American soldiers. Which is why the effort continues, even in the United States.

Every day the number of those who lost property during World War II drops lower. But their heirs and estates are still around. And should be made whole. Well, as whole as getting back a painting can do. Some things can never be repaired. The 20th century was like that.

All the best to the new Monuments People. Now where is that book?


Print Headline: Treasure hunt

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