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November 24, 2013

Robert M. Edsel's Talk at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Launched "Saving Italy" and the Archives Program

by Tanya K. Lervik

Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation's Treasures from the Nazis Best-selling author, Robert M. Edsel addressed a packed audience in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium this week. The event on November 19th publicized the launch of his newest book, Saving Italy, which celebrates the achievements of two members of the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program.

Deane Keller and Fred Hartt risked their lives and put academic careers at Yale on hold to join the race to save Italy's masterpieces. As they traveled with Allied troops, their original mission working to minimize damage and stabilizing threatened works evolved as the scope of Nazi looting became clear. Many priceless artworks from the great museums of Naples and Florence were unceremoniously bundled off with the retreating German forces and used as a pawn by General Karl Wolff, commander of the SS forces in Italy. Without Hitler's knowledge, Wolff secretly negotiated the Nazi surrender with American OSS spymaster, Allen Dulles. Meanwhile, the "Monuments Men" worked tirelessly to retrieve the hostage art and prepare for its eventual triumphant return.

Edsel also spoke about his other efforts to increase public awareness of the legacy of the Monuments Men. The recently publicized discovery of the Gurlitt hoard in Munich highlights the fact that many lost artworks may still be discovered. Edsel hopes that the February 7th film release of "The Monuments Men" which dramatizes his first book will inspire people to consider the importance of preserving art and culture in times of war, and possibly to look more deeply into the history of objects they may have inherited. 

The combined star power of a cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, and John Goodman promises to shine a powerful light on the issue. Edsel hopes to focus that raised interest through his Monuments Men Foundation by asking the public to approach the foundation with tips and questions about objects they may have at home. He pointed out that many of the larger lost artworks are likely to be either lost or to have been confiscated by the retreating Soviet Army, so his aim is to concentrate on smaller, more portable items that may lie the obscurity of personal collections. In this way, Edsel hopes to expand efforts to repatriate looted art. 

Related links: 

See a brief documentary on the wartime exploits of the Monuments Men:

Watch the trailer for the upcoming film version of Edsel’s book: 

View archived Monuments Men documents from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art:

Watch Robert Edsel speak about "Saving Italy" on Book TV: