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Six decades after World War II, a mission to return looted artwork to its rightful owners has left behind a priceless legacy.

Harry Ettlinger was all of 20 years old when he came into possession of his first Rembrandt. A middleman of sorts, Ettlinger handled an untold fortune in artwork as a young man, in fact. And he helped give it all away — without receiving a nickel of profit.

Ettlinger was one of 350 members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA), a team made up of men and women from 13 nations — including 225 members of the U.S. Armed Forces — whose mission in World War II and its aftermath was the most altruistic and epic lost-and-found recovery effort in modern history.

Informally known as Monuments Men, Ettlinger and his cohorts worked to minimize battle damage to priceless treasures and to reclaim artwork the Nazis had looted.

“The spoils of war do not belong to the victors,” says Ettlinger, now 82 and living in New Jersey. “Culture belongs to everybody, and we can all be proud that back then the United States understood this.”

Ettlinger’s family knew the Nazi terror firsthand, having been forced to sell their successful clothing store in Karlsruhe, Germany. In 1938, the day after Ettlinger, then almost 13 years old, had his bar mitzvah, his family left Germany and sailed to New York. Uncle Sam drafted Ettlinger in 1944, just as he finished high school. “I was lucky,” he says. “Because I spoke German, they did not send me into battle.” He ended up in Munich days before Germany surrendered, and he volunteered to be a Monuments Man.

In 1943, the Monuments Men began following the twisted trail of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, who had pillaged the cultural treasures of other nations on an unprecedented scale. In 1945, as Allied forces moved across Europe and entered Germany and discovered the stolen goods, the Monuments Men painstakingly cataloged each piece, identified its rightful owner, and returned the artwork.

The pace of recovery accelerated in the spring of 1945, as Ettlinger and Allied forces continued their trek across Germany. Two finds in April, in salt mines in Heilbronn and Merkers, were especially huge, because they included works evacuated from German museums for safekeeping as well as reserves of gold from the Reich’s treasury.

Even now, six decades later, Ettlinger can vividly recall finding a Rembrandt deep in the mine. “I was not surprised,” he says, “because we knew the mine was full of treasures. We had already found masterpieces in that mine, in castles, and in other places where the Nazis stored them.”

In Bavaria, Ettlinger was part of the effort to recover 6,000 works of art hidden in Neuschwanstein Castle, many of which had been stolen from the private collections of French Jews. And in May 1945, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division found 1,000 pieces of art that once had been controlled by Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Goering, and which had been moved a month earlier, ahead of the advancing Soviet army.

Although Ettlinger’s tour ended in 1946, the work of the MFAA continued in Europe until 1951. The unit tracked, found, and returned more than five million artistic and cultural items that had been stored in more than 1,000 locations. No one else has ever accomplished so much cultural preservation in such little time with so few resources. When they weren’t packing and shipping works, the Monuments Men helped soften the enormous hardships of postwar life by organizing temporary art exhibits and music concerts. “We wanted the German people to understand our [American] philosophy,” says Ettlinger.

The remarkable story of the Monuments Men is told in more detail in Robert Edsel’s lavishly illustrated Rescuing Da Vinci and in the documentary film The Rape of Europa. Edsel formed the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art to preserve the legacy of the Monuments Men and to remind the public of the need to protect artistic and cultural treasures — past, present, and future — during wars and conflicts.

After a period of relative quiet, the artwork- recovery process that was first set in motion six decades ago is resurgent.

“It’s great that things are still happening,” says Ettlinger, the youngest and one of only a dozen Monuments Men (including one woman) who are still alive and able to see their work still carried out. In recent years, there has been a spate of returns of valuable art to heirs of the rightful owners, and in turn, many of those pieces have later been sold for large amounts. After an Austrian arbitration court ruled in favor of returning five paintings by Gustav Klimt to Los Angeles resident Maria Altmann, an heir of the Bloch-Bauer family of Vienna, Altmann sold them for $327 million. Included in that total is the $135 million she received for a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

One of the happier current stories centers on a painting by English artist J.M.W. Turner, Glaucus and Scylla, which pro-Nazi French officials stole from a Jewish family in 1943. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, purchased the work after the war but voluntarily agreed in 2006 to return it to heirs of John and Anna Jaffé. The museum’s swift return — once ownership had been proven — was exemplary and honorable. And better still, the Kimbell then repurchased the Turner work for almost $6.5 million at a recent auction.

Russia also has begun to return looted works, most recently a fourteenth-century stained-glass window taken in 1945 from St. Mary’s Cathedral in Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, in what would soon be East Germany.

But sadly, many works remain missing. Perhaps the most famous is Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, which Nazis stole from the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland. Monuments Man Bernard Taper, who’s 89 and lives in Berkeley, California, worked with Polish officials for months in the 1940s, tracking down clues and interrogating Germans. He had some good leads. He dreamed about the painting. But even in his dreams, he did not recover the Raphael. To this day, a small photo of the work hangs in the museum in Kraków, within its original frame, a reminder of a treasure lost. “Someday,” Taper says, “it may show up.”