DALLAS (AP) — After selling his Dallas oil and gas company and moving to Europe, Robert Edsel found himself in the art-drenched Italian city of Florence. Standing on the city's famous medieval covered bridge — the Ponte Vecchio — he began to contemplate how so many famous sites and works of art in Europe survived the destruction of World War II.
With the answer, Edsel, the businessman who had developed a love for art, found a mission: Honoring and continuing the work the Monuments Men, a group from Western Allied countries made up mostly of those with an art expertise who worked with the military to protect cultural treasures as battles were waged and, in the years after the war, returned works of art to their rightful owners.
His work over the years — from founding the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art in 2007 after his return to Dallas to writing three books, including, "Saving Italy," released this week — has helped bring their story out of scholarly circles and to the public's attention. That recognition is set to skyrocket in December with the premiere of a movie based on Edsel's book, "The Monuments Men," directed by and starring George Clooney.
"I think what they were involved in was pretty epic: Every work of art somewhere on the road during World War II, then finding these things and getting them back. I think they've earned the right to be recognized by name," said Edsel, 56.
Clarissa Post, a Sotheby's art expert, said Edsel's vision always included bringing the story to a wider audience.
"It was always: Let's think big here. What are we going to do to bring this message forward? Because if we can bring this message forward to a wider audience, we can then really do something to honor these people who were involved," said Post, who started her career at the auction house researching the provenance of works, especially those that might have been involved in the art theft by the Nazis.
After his move to Europe in 1996, Edsel's musings started to put things in motion. By 2001, he had returned to the U.S. and focused more on the story of the roughly 345 men and women from 13 countries who were part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section. The group was proposed by a commission established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 to promote the preservation of cultural properties during war.
"I had friends asking me what I was working on and I'd say, 'The only thing I'm really interested in is this whole story about World War II and what happened to all of the art.' And lunch after lunch and dinner after dinner, I never had anybody stop me and said they that they knew about it," Edsel said.
He tracked down Lynn Nicholas, author of "The Rape of Europa," which details the Nazi plunder of art and the efforts by the Western Allies to save it, telling her he wanted to make a documentary on her book. Learning filmmakers already were working on it, he became a co-producer. He started compiling photographs to tell the story of the Monuments Men, which eventually became his first book: "Rescuing Da Vinci."
He interviewed Monuments Men and got access to letters written by those who had died.
"I felt that the beating heart of the story was these letters that the Monuments Men wrote home during the war," he said.
The resulting book, "The Monuments Men," chronicles the experiences of members in northern Europe, including Harry Ettlinger, now 87.
Ettlinger, who lives in New Jersey, fled Nazi Germany with his family the day after his bar mitzvah in 1938 and returned to Europe in 1945 with the U.S. Army. Ettlinger, fluent in German, volunteered to be a Monuments Man. His first assignment was to help interview Adolf Hitler's personal photographer and later went on to help return works of art tucked away in salt mines.
He said that the group's work earned respect from the German people.
"They didn't quite understand how you could come along and give things back," he said, adding, "It gave you a good feeling."
Over the years, Edsel's foundation also has worked to continue the mission of the Monuments Men, which had members overseeing the restitution of stolen works of art for up to six years after the war ended. His foundation, for instance, has been contacted by those who realized something taken as a souvenir during WWII is a historical artifact and has helped with the repatriation of items, including the return to Germany of an album of photographs of artwork Hitler planned for his "Fuhrermuseum."
Following their service as Monuments Men, members returned to their careers, including as architects, artists, curators and museum directors.
Lola Scarpitta-Knapple, of Los Angeles, is grateful Edsel's work has brought attention to the group that included her late father, Salvatore Scarpitta Jr., an artist.
"It's amazing how so many people can know about something that's so interesting but nobody takes the bull by the horns," she said. "And Robert has the energy, the intellect and the heart to have done that. And for that all Monuments Men are happy. Because I think they all wanted to talk about it in the way that was in the public arena because it was so important."
Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art: http://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org