Quickly, however, the job of the Monuments Men became a search-and-rescue mission. They followed clues gathered from captured Nazi documents, leads from local residents and from Rose Valland, an art custodian. She kept voluminous notes about the whereabouts of art plundered from French museums and Jewish private collections. Priceless artworks were hidden in copper mines and salt mines, in city jails and castles and underground storage facilities. More than 5 million cultural objects were protected, preserved or found by the Monuments Men. Many more never have been found and could have been destroyed by the Nazis or picked up from the rubble as war souvenirs by Allied or Russian soldiers.
Edsel shows me photos from his books. At the same time Adolf Hitler attempted to take over the world, his armies methodically gathered and hoarded the finest art treasures in Europe. Some went into the Führer’s collection (he’d planned to build the finest museum in the world); some of it — modern art by Chagall, Matisse, Picasso and other artists whom he called “degenerate” — Hitler planned to destroy, and he succeeded in some cases. My coffee cools as I lean in and listen. Edsel tells me he was just another Dallas guy who made money in the oil business (his company, Gemini Exploration Company, pioneered the use of horizontal drilling). After coming to the realization that work never loves you back, he sold the company; traveled to Europe; rented a house in Florence, Italy; began learning Italian; and eventually hired an art-history professor to walk with him around the city. They met every week for four months, walking and talking about Gothic and Renaissance art and architecture. “Florence is like one big museum piece; I’m not great at learning from books and prefer the hands-on approach,” he says.
One day as he walked across the Arno River on the iconic Ponte Vecchio (the only bridge across the Arno not destroyed during World War II), he started wondering how so many cultural treasures had survived the fierce fighting. Tens of thousands of books had been written about WWII, but he didn’t find many about “who saved the art.” So he began researching and eventually writing the books he wanted to read. I had never heard of the Monuments Men before talking with him.
“Oh, you will hear lots more,” Edsel says. “George Clooney is making a major motion picture that’s based on my book.”