Noah Charney is a professor of art history specializing in art crime and an international best-selling author of fiction (The Art Thief) and non-fiction (Stealing the Mystic Lamb). He teaches for American University of Rome and Brown University, and is an award-winning columnist for a variety of popular magazines and newspapers. He is the founder of ARCA, and has served as its president since its inception. In his column "Lessons from the History of Art Crime", Noah Charney writes about “The British Origin of the Monuments Men”:
This winter, when George Clooney’s drama comes out about the Monuments Men and their adventures in saving Europe’s art treasures during the Second World War, viewers will be privy to a Hollywoodization of a true, dramatic, epic story of the race to rescue an estimated five million cultural heritage objects, from paintings and sculptures to rare books and valuable archival materials, that were looted by the Nazis and risked complete destruction. The Clooney film is only loosely based on historical fact—it necessarily compresses, condenses, and alters reality to fit the rules of a Hollywood feature. But one aspect of the Monuments Men that most American accounts skip past or exclude altogether is the fact that the Monuments Men began as a British operation—its spearhead was a most British brand of hero, Sir Leonard Woolley.
The Monuments Men was the nickname of a group of some three-hundred Allied officers, members of the art world during their civilian lives (architects, conservators, archaeologists, art historians), who were charged with identifying art and monuments that might be in the line of fighting in Europe during the Second World War. Once these works, from Notre Dame Cathedral to the entire contents of the Uffizi, were identified, the officers would advise the Allied armies they accompanied on how, whenever possible, to avoid damage to these cultural monuments. That part of their call of duty was the British plan. But their role changed in practice, once the officers were in the field and it became clear, only late in the war, that there was an enormous, proactive art-looting plan that the Nazis had put into operation, led by their art theft unit, the ERR, and intended to both enrich the Nazi war effort and fill Hitler’s planned “super museum” that would occupy the entirety of his boyhood town of Linz, Austria, which would contain every important artwork in the world. Once in the field, as an under-appreciated and under-supported twig attached to the massive Allied armies, the Monuments Men began to act as war-time art detectives, seeking out key stolen works, piecing together clues as to the overall Nazi art theft plan, and eventually rescuing tens of thousands of looted masterpieces, including van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna—the twin focal points of the Clooney film.
You may finish reading this column in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue (#11) of The Journal of Art Crime edited by ARCA founder Noah Charney. The Journal of Art Crime may be accessed through subscription or in paperback from Amazon.com. The Table of Contents is listed on ARCA's website here. The Associate Editors are Marc Balcells (John Jay College of Law) and Christos Tsirogiannis (University of Cambridge). Design and layout (including the front cover illustration) are produced by Urška Charney.