A Monumental Man

This past Wednesday, I got to meet Robert Edsel!

[ silence ]

Who is Robert Edsel?  He’s the author of all those Monuments Men books, on which the movie is based.

You know, the movie where George Clooney and Matt Damon have to save all that art from Hitler?

Ah yes, now I see I’m getting somewhere.

Some background on this:

I wrote about the Monuments Men during my World War 2 day post where some living historians had dressed up like men from this unheard-of unit.  The living historians had been inspired by reading the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (2009).  They said it was a good book and I should read it.  Before that book, way back in 1994, someone had written a book about the same subject called The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War.  And that’s more-or-less all that has been written on saving art from Hitler until recently.

Enter George Clooney.

Hi there.

George – do you mind if I call him George? – had read Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men and got interested.  George is intellectually curious, and I like that.  I like that his book choices are as varied as his roles have been.  He’s like the American Sean Connery – silver fox in a tux, but minus the accent.  He could be the next James Bond but for being a damn Yank.  But I digress.  George had the desire, as well as the connections and the finances, to put the book on the silver screen.  And so he did and it premiered on February 7 to decidedly mediocre reviews, but that’s another post.

HOWEVER before the movie came out, before the seed was planted in George’s mind, before The Monuments Men was even written, Edsel was raising awareness of this subject.  I can’t even call it a dead subject because there are still missing artifacts and art pieces.  In 2007, he founded The Monuments Men Foundation, which won some humanities award.  And since the movie trailers have debuted and George Clooney and Matt Damon got involved, interest has spiked exponentially.


That is probably why he was involved in a panel on Wednesday at the National Archives in DC, although the direct correlation of movie –> panel is speculation on my part.  I had heard in passing that the Archives were having an exhibit for the Monuments Men, but I couldn’t find anything on the Archives.gov website.  When I searched for “Monuments Men”, the panel’s event page came up, my jaw dropped and I dropped everything to go put it in my calendar.

For being practically unknown a mere few months ago, the panel was mildly absurd in the good kind of way.  For one, people had lined up outside of the Archives well in advance of the event.  I arrived 45 minutes early and was far from the first one there.  The line was probably long enough to stretch halfway around the block even though the theater had a limited number of seats.  For two, many people had seen the movie and were interested in learning more about the subject.  How often has that happened – a major blockbuster sending people to the Archives of the United States out of curiosity?

The panelists were also pretty remarkable, considering this was such a niche field.  The moderator, Greg Bradsher, is an archivist at the National Archives is something of an expert on Holocaust era looted assets and related research.  Then besides Mr. Edsel was Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, who served as Special Representative of the President and Secretary of State on Holocaust related issues during the Clinton administration.  He got Europe (Switzerland, Germany, France, Austria) to reach a deal concerning looted things, bank accounts, insurance issues, and slavery of the Holocaust era.  Next, Michael Kurtz has written on Nazi contraband and has received recognition from several honors societies: Pi Gamma Mu, Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Alpha Theta.  Lastly, Nancy Yeide is head of the Department of Curatorial Records at the National Gallery.  Does that make her THE national curator?  Her area of expertise is provenance, that is, who owned it before.

2014-02-19 20.23.53 HDR

More brains than I can handle.

This panel was filmed live and shown on CSPAN 2 at the same time.  I could have been on television!  It was also streamed live online and the video was put up here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/44036479.  It’s a little long but if you have the stamina, it isn’t dull.

Some things from the lecture:
– Ambassador Eizenstat talked about the organization of the Nazi machine and how one way they disenfranchised the Jews was through insurance chicanery.  Something about letting policies lapse from lack of payment and then refusing to pay out to successors.  He formed a commission on these things and repaid the policies, plus inflation, to the tune of several billion (or million?) dollars.

– George Stout, played by George Clooney, was a man ahead of his time.  He saw World War 2 coming miles away and had already been thinking about cultural preservation and art long before Pearl Harbor was bombed.

– Of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archivists members, the archivists always felt inferior.  I feel like there’s a joke in there somewhere.

– Edsel described Rose Valland (played by Cate Blanchett) as one of the great heroines of WW2.  And he described how crucial her relationship with James Rorimer (Matt Damon) was for the recovery of art and their months-long courtship as they tested each other out.  He described them as “Two people of destiny each holding a piece of the same key.”  Man he has a way with words.

– The Clinton Administration wrote a report on Operation Safe Haven, during which it came to light that the Swiss banks enabled the Nazis by converting the Reichmark, which had no value abroad, to Swiss Francs, thereby allowing the financing of the war.  A more legible summary is here and a shorter summary is here.  If you have the time, I highly recommend reading at least one of those links.

– In 1998, there was a conference on Holocaust-era assets during which standards were set on researching provenance and restoring art.  At the end of the War, the MFAA returned the art to the countries of origin and assumed/hoped the countries would research individual owners, which didn’t happen because the Cold War sprang up.  Today, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the top two art auction houses, have full-time provenance researchers.  If you go to a museum and you read the title of the piece and the year it was made, there is usually a blurb about where the piece originated and who owns it now or where the piece is on loan from.  That blurb is the piece’s provenance.  In Europe (or Germany?) (or Austria?) many of their museum pieces don’t have the provenance listed.

– After this decree (which occurred the same year as the Good Friday Agreement.  Clinton was busy that year), Russia said it was going to keep everything it had taken.  After the War, the MFAA returned the art but Russia kept everything they took as payment for the havoc wreaked on their people/land.

– The modern incarnation of the MFAA is NOT directly related, as I had claimed in my earlier WW2 post.  Edsel thinks the modern guys are well-intended but there’s too much bureaucracy at the top.

– The women in the MFAA didn’t serve in combat roles.  Their jobs were more behind-the-scenes, like preparing maps and information.  After the war, they were integral at the collecting points, which existed into the early 1950’s, but the sexy derring-do of the front lines was long over by then.

– There were people in the Asian theater of the war but not as many.

– According to Edsel, the two greatest things of being an American citizen are owning a passport (which he pulled out of his pocket and waved around), and the chance to utilize the Archives.

Afterwards, Mr. Edsel was going to be signing books in the foyer.  Perhaps it was the size of the line (which was steadily growing), or that he is an impatient man, or that he must be good at frenetic situations like this or how else would he have been so successful in his business life, but he didn’t seem to be listening when I tried telling him I first heard about the Monuments Men at a World War 2 reenactment of all things.  I definitely saw “Why are you telling me this?” cross his face.  Right then.  But I had caught him off guard when reaching out to shake his hand and thank him for the talk so … point for me?  He’s never going to see me again so why not?  I got my book signed, with my name and his signature, so I consider the night to be a success.

I did not buy his newest book Saving Italy just to have it signed, mostly because I can get it for less than $24 on Amazon.  Also, whoever designed the jacket for this book really needs to learn a thing or two about placing copy strategically.  Maybe it was deliberate.  Maybe the designer thought this was a good opportunity to put a naked man on the front of a NYT best seller.  Who knows.  #YOLO?

Some observations:
– Edsel is a lefty.
– There had been a special screening of the film at the White House the previous night, with the actors, some Cabinet members, several prominent Jewish community members, POTUS, Edsel and some of Edsel’s retinue.  Edsel’s lefty-ness isn’t quite as turned-around-claw that Obama’s is, but it’s close.  Maybe they compared notes.
– He started speaking and my first thought was, “Woah!  Texas!”  The accent is there.
– He’s got some fascinating facial structure going on there, comparable to the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Tom Hiddleston, and Johnny Depp.  I want to learn how to draw it.
– This was my first time inside the National Archives.

… And that, folks, is how I “met” someone famous.


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