WWII treasure hunt continues 70 years later

NEW YORK -- An 18th-century painting was returned to Poland Wednesday, nearly 70 years after it was stolen by the Nazis. The campaign to recover looted artwork dates back to 1943, when FDR ordered the biggest treasure hunt in history.

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Robert Edsel
CBS News
It's the subject of a new movie, "The Monuments Men," which tells the story of the Nazis' looting of five million works of art -- and the battle to save them. Their plunder included masterpieces. The Allies sent a group of 345 museum curators, historians and architects to rescue the stolen art.

"They found themselves unintentionally as treasure hunters trying to track down millions of cultural objects that have been stolen by the Nazis," said Robert Edsel, who wrote the book that became the movie.

"These are middle-aged men," Edsel said. "They have every reason not to volunteer for military service, but they felt they had a contribution to make as part of winning the war, winning the freedom by preserving the great cultural treasures of Europe."

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Harry Ettlinger was 19 years old, fluent in German and could read Nazi inventory codes.
CBS News
 Harry Ettlinger, now 88, is one of three surviving Monuments Men. He was 19 years old, fluent in German and could read Nazi inventory codes.

He was also a German Jew, who was forced to leave Germany. So how could he go back to help with the war effort?

"I went back as an American soldier, not as a German," he said. "Instead of taking things, we adopted policies of returning them to their rightful owners. It gave us a great feeling that we were able to come along and do that." 

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The Allies sent a group of 345 museum curators, historians and architects to rescue the stolen art.
CBS News
Last week, Sotheby's auctioned four paintings recovered by the Monuments Men. You can still see where the Nazis numbered a stolen painting.

 

 Robert Edsel took CBS News to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, home to a dozen paintings recovered by the Monuments Men. But the whereabouts of major works remains a mystery, including a portrait by Raphael.

"I think there are hundreds of thousands of works of art, cultural objects, library books, documents that are still missing," Edsel said. "We're still gathering the pieces. We're still solving the mysteries."

Just last year, German authorities announced they had found 1,400 pieces in a Munich apartment, including works by Matisse and Picasso. Nearly 70 years after the war, the treasure hunt continues.


  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.

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