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October 29, 2013

Tonality and the Delay of George Clooney's film on The Monuments Men

by Fern Smiley, Art Researcher and Consultant on Holocaust Era Cultural Property

George Clooney recently announced that that release of his film, The Monuments Men, will be delayed until 2014. Sharon Waxman, editor of The Wrap and author of LOOT: The Battle Over The Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World (Henry Holt & Company, 2008), ascertains that the cause of the delay is because George Clooney is struggling with the tone of ‘Monuments Men’: “He’d been grappling with balancing the movie’s comic elements with the serious subject matter of World War II and the Nazis’ theft of Europe’s most valuable art.”

Except Clooney has since denied that the delay had anything to do with tonality, insisting that it's all about timing, mostly getting the visual effects right. Even so, Waxman had published on October 23 that a person close to the film claimed, “The hard-to-nail tone was more the issue than the visual effects”.

Context is everything except in Hollywood

The 1964 thriller, The Train starring Burt Lancaster, was inspired by the true story of train No. 40,044 “liberated” outside Paris in 1944 by members of the French Resistance who prevented the train from crossing the border into Germany at the war’s end. In 1964, the year that John Frankenheimer released the film, Hollywood did not acknowledge that the content of the train, priceless artwork, was, in reality, confiscated from Jewish dealers and collectors throughout France and Belgium, but the “Monuments Men” knew.

Lynn Nicolas’ Rape of Europa, the 1995 book which became the benchmark for the subject of Nazi art looting and restitution, reveals the ironic fact that the Jewish American soldier who commandeered the actual train was the son of Paul Rosenberg, the venerated Parisian art dealer. Lt. Alexandre Rosenberg liberated hundreds of French impressionists pictures (many which he recognized that had hung in his parents’ home). Before fleeing France, Paul Rosenberg had tried to safeguard his possessions in a bank in Libourne and a rented chateau in Floirac but both were purloined by Nazi agents.

Robert Edsel’s book of the same name and upon which George Clooney based his film details the recovery starting in 1944 of an astonishing number of works of art stored in salt mines and repositories throughout Europe. For six more years the Monuments Men uncovered deposits; protected, documented, and eventually returned what could be traced to the country of origin to be restituted to the rightful owners.

The meticulously detailed German records of confiscation of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) aided the officers in the recovery. Nancy Yeide, curator of the National Gallery of Art, once commented on the system of ERR plunder: "The very people they were eradicating, they were taking their art and keeping track of whom they take the art from”… except in the case of the M-Aktion, of course, where owners were unidentifiable, since the art and furnishings seized were from abandoned Jewish lodgings, constituting a rich haul of significant and not-so-significant works and objects.

Despite the remarkable recovery work of the "Monuments Men", the whereabouts of tens of thousands of works remained unknown. Meanwhile, according to Marc Masurovsky, founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, the art trade suddenly flourished, and an unprecedented boom in sales occurred throughout a newly infused international art market, ready to embrace stolen property.

Especially in North America

Collections assembled and museums opened during and after the WWII era are still coming to grips with the identification of ‘Holocaust Looted Art’. “The Monuments Men” returned to the US and Canada and Britain after WWII. Some found senior positions in the countries’ museums. Others were academics in the nations’ colleges and universities However, in at least one uncomfortable case, the estate of an ex-Monuments officer contained many seventeen and eighteenth century European works which, because of their unknown provenance, made their ultimate disposition difficult.

American museums have identified 16,000 objects in their possession that may have been seized by the Nazis. Chapter 6 of the 1972 catalogue of The National Gallery of Canada 1938-1955: “Great Years of Collecting” raises eyebrows. This April, Canada’s federal government announced the funding of $200,000 to support the research efforts in six Canadian museums to help establish the provenance of works of art. “It is an important initiative for researchers and heirs around the world who are trying to identify and locate artworks and other cultural artifacts displaced during the Holocaust” said Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, at the Ottawa’s Carleton University conference examining “If not now, when? Responsibility and Memory after the Holocaust.”

It is 2013. George Clooney has a challenge. Waiting a bit longer for a movie, which “means something” according to him, will necessitate a considered approach to the topic. (In the meantime, one could do well by reading the non-fiction book, the above mentioned, Rape of Europa.)

One simply cannot speak about Nazi art looting without referencing the Holocaust. There is international cooperation, legal papers, institutes and conferences examining Nazi art looting and restitution as a component of the Holocaust. News stories run weekly describing successes and failures of claimants, a popularized one, being Elizabeth Taylor’s 2007 pre-emptive lawsuit to keep her Van Gogh from the heirs of Mrs. Margaret Mauthner.

Even in Italy, even by Italians

In Italy, after the first Fascist Racial Laws took hold in the fall of 1938, seizure of works of art from Jews began even without any Nazi presence. Circular n. 43, issued by the Ministry of Education on 4th of March 1939, called upon Royal Customs Offices, responsible for granting export licenses for art and antiquities, to create difficulties and discourage exports of all Jewish emigrants. This was in response to an earlier measure, of the 7th of December 1938, ordering the actual expulsion of all foreign born Jews living on Italian soil, giving them six months to leave the country. According to the Italian scholar Dr. Ilaria Pavan, many of their possessions languished in crates at ports like Genoa. In 1947, the owner of such a crate, containing 558 works of art applied for removal of her property, according to archival material in the Superintendency in Liguria, but then returned them in 1948, their poor condition being in direct relation to the unsuitability of the storage space in which they had been held.

“Sequestrations” in Italian towns and cities took place in earnest, facilitated by the arrest and deportation of its Jewish citizens in 1943/44. A report dated 7 July 1944 from the Superintendency of Florence, Pistoia and Prato concerning removal of all property owned by Jews noted that “lesser objects be sold at Materazzi’s” with added commentary that translates, “it is better to leave as few traces as possible, either of receipts or of the stuff taken from Jews”. In this case sequestration of art was actually undertaken by the Italian local Fascist authorities, not the Nazis.

In the northeast where the German occupying forces carried out confiscations and deportations, records of the Pollitzer, Luzzato, Jesurum, Lescovitch and Morpurgo families, had their art given to local museums that is, after the Nazis skimmed off the best. Musei Civico Trieste and Udine were enriched according to OMGUS post-war documents of Preparations and Restitution Branch, Office of the Military Government (US).

Set in Italy, during this moment of genocide, “Monuments Men, the movie”, cannot sidestep the full historical record. George Clooney, thankfully, is exquisitely placed to increase understanding of Nazi art looting. As lives were threatened or lost by deportation to death camps, stolen private and communal Jewish cultural property shifted from one place to another. At the Italians’ pleading, shipments from museum deposits at risk from bombing were transported by the Germans to the Vatican for safety. Perhaps even the Vatican may have safeguarded objects of Jewish origin, which it still possesses. With the new Pope promising transparency and access to archives, that question may just get answered.

Now that would be a movie.

Ms. Smiley, a former arts volunteer and weblog editor, has advised the Canadian Jewish Congress on their file for Holocaust era art restitution and attended ARCA's Postgraduate Certificate Program in 2011. 


Interministerial Commission for Works of Art
In October 1995, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities established this commission to research missing artwork plundered by the Nazis during World War II

The Commissione Anselmi did not carry out a detailed research in state and private museum in order to verify the presence of works of art taken from Jews. The  Interministerial Commission for the recovery of art works assured that no such instance is documented in its records.

Research carried out by the Historical Archive of the Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea. Examples of Material Losses suffered by the Jews in the period 1938-1945.

Series: Records Relating to Monuments. Museums, Libraries, Archives and Fine Arts of the Cultural Affairs Branch, OMGUS, 1946-49 and FA. NARA, RG 260.
Category: JI Allied Commission- Italy. 65 pp, 

Doctor Ilaria Pavan, Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa)
The Italian Experience. Paper delivered at Christie’s and International Union of Lawyers  “Holocaust Art Looting & Restitution Symposium”.
Milan, Italy. Thursday, June 23, 2011

L’Opera di Ritrovare. Sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for the Cultural and Environmental Heritage. Italian State Publishing House, 1995.


I am also waiting for this movie "The Monuments Men"