January 16, 2007
A Monumental Hunt for Treasure
The Wall Street Journal
The story concerns the mass looting of Europe's patrimony by the Nazis, followed by the historic achievements of the so-called Monuments Men, the mostly American (and British) officers who recovered and repatriated so much of the theft at war's end. Listening to the 51-year-old Mr. Edsel, one realizes that this is a case of a grand story and the perfect exponent finding each other and coming to the fore at a most fertile moment. According to Mr. Edsel, "we will be hearing more and more about still unrecovered World War II art rising to the surface because we are at a pivotal time when that generation is dying, the Soviet archives are becoming available, things are popping up just as the Internet gains force and negates any attempts to hide anything." But equally, for the tall Texan, it's a critical moment for reminding the world of the American tradition of conserving the cultures of others.
Mr. Edsel has devoted the past 12 years of his life to this project. What started as an interest became an all-consuming passion, a kind of calling, as he gained expertise, built up archives and interviews, and launched the full-time Monuments Men foundation with his own resources.
Last year, he self-published the book "Rescuing Da Vinci," which tells the main story in pictures. Then, this past year, he made news three times. First, his single-minded initiative to win appreciation for the Monuments Men finally triumphed this June 6, on the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, when both houses of Congress officially recognized their achievements. Then, on Nov. 1, the National Archives announced Mr. Edsel's discovery and donation of two missing albums from Hitler's own catalog of officially looted art. Finally, on Nov. 15, he and his Monuments Men foundation received the National Humanities medal. He was, on that occasion, accompanied by four of the last 12 surviving officers. One could argue that he made news four times, the fourth as co-producer of "The Rape of Europa," the stirring documentary now in general release that focuses equally on the obliteration of countless beloved European monuments during the war -- a haunting, unforgettable film.