Based on Robert Edsel’s book of the same title, George Clooney’s latest film, “The Monuments Men,” tells the true story of American and European art experts who recovered several million cultural objects from Nazi art repositories at the end of World War II.
Elizabeth Campbell Karlsgodt, an associate professor of history at the University of Denver, watched the movie with special interest. Author of “Defending National Treasures: French Art and Heritage Under Vichy” (Stanford University Press, 2011), which focuses on French cultural policy during World War II, Karlsgodt is an expert on Nazi art looting and was interviewed for a recent National Geographic special, “Hunting Hitler’s Stolen Treasures: The Monuments Men.” In preparation for her next book, she took a sabbatical last year to do research at the U.S. National Archives and in Paris, London, Amsterdam, The Hague and Brussels.
Q: You are working on a new book about Nazi art looting. What will this one focus on?
A: It will examine the art recovery process carried out by members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section of western Allied forces, otherwise known as the Monuments Men — and Women. I’m looking at the restitution process established by the MFAA in Germany, in which works of art were returned to countries of origin and national governments established claims procedures for private owners. The book will compare restitution policies in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, focusing on unclaimed works of art that eventually were appropriated by the governments for state-run museums.
Q: What does restitution mean in this context?
A: It means returning works of art to their rightful owners, which often was a complicated process. The major art collectors held significant ownership documentation, such as insurance policies and photographs. However, many smaller collectors or their descendants lacked documentation required to make a valid claim. Thousands of Jewish collectors also sold pieces under duress during the Nazi era as a result of anti-Semitic persecution. After the war, officials usually considered those sales voluntary and legal. The fact that many pieces have been resold over the last several decades continues to complicate legal and ethical notions of rightful ownership.
Q: So artworks were taken from private homes? Or were some public pieces taken too?
A: Most of the looted art came from private collections, mostly owned by Jews. The Nazis did seize some famous publicly owned works. For example, the film shows the Monuments Men hunting for two Belgian masterpieces, the Ghent altarpiece, a 15th century Flemish polyptych, and Michelangelo’s “Madonna” sculpture, which was taken from Bruges as the Germans were retreating in 1944. But most of the looted objects came from private collections in territories occupied by the Germans. The Nazis stole works from homes and repositories and dominated the European art market to purchase works funneled through unscrupulous dealers and sold by Jews under duress.
Q: Was “The Monuments Men” enjoyable to watch, or did the inaccuracies distract you?
A: I watched the film knowing it was designed to entertain with inevitable dramatization. However, it distorts history in some disappointing ways. For example, by focusing on the Ghent altarpiece and the Bruges “Madonna,” the film avoids examining the seizure of Jewish assets, which was central to the Nazi effort to eliminate Jews from Europe altogether. We get glimpses of the Holocaust in the film, such as the discovery of barrels of gold fillings taken from victims’ teeth. But those allusions are outnumbered by references to a collective heritage being rescued, “our civilization” and “our history,” an appealing narrative that avoids addressing whose assets, exactly, had been plundered.
Q: I understand you also have some issues with Cate Blanchett’s character in the movie.
A: Cate Blanchett’s character, Claire Simone, is inspired by a French curator, Rose Valland, who risked her life to spy on Nazi art looting operations. The film accurately depicts some of Valland’s work and the intelligence she gathered. Valland developed an important partnership with James Rorimer, an American curator who inspired the character played by Matt Damon, James Granger. Valland eventually shared her notes with Rorimer, who used them to track down some of the most important masterpieces taken from France. The film depicts romantic tension between the characters, which is an unfortunate interpretation of a professional partnership that was grounded in deep mutual respect.
Q: Why are stories about art heists and art looting so interesting to audiences?
A: I think audiences are open to learning about Nazi art looting, following greater public awareness of the Holocaust over the last few decades. The loss of human life has been examined through films like “Schindler’s List,” “The Pianist” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Institutions like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum have helped to teach this painful history to younger generations and the general public. This growing awareness of the Final Solution now allows a discussion of looted art that does not seem frivolous. Rather, the ongoing pursuit of restitution can be viewed as a way to achieve belated justice for the heirs of Holocaust victims.