Watch CBS News

Recovered art has way of telling its story as "Monuments Men" opens

Four painting stolen by the Nazis as part of Hitler's war on European culture were sold at a Sotheby's auction
"The Monuments Men" recovered WWII masterpieces hit auction block 03:12

Matt Damon and George Clooney star in the new film "The Monuments Men," which opens in theaters nationwide Friday.

In December, CBS News’ Mark Strassmann reported on the movie's inspiration, a group of museum professionals turned Allied soldiers in World War II. They saved Jewish-owned works of art seized by the Nazis, but the stolen portraits have a way of telling their own story.

At a recent Sotheby's auction, four paintings stood out - and not only as fine art. They were all once stolen by the Nazis, part of Hitler's war on European culture.

“The Holocaust really begins with the theft of people's belongings and the destruction of what they believe in,” said Robert Edsel, the author of “The Monuments Men,” the basis for the new movie.

The unlikely heroes were middle-aged museum directors, curators and art historians. The Nazis had looted Europe, and World War II was ending.

It's estimated the Monuments Men recovered 90 percent of five million pieces stolen from museums and family collections, like the Rothschilds'.

At Sotheby's, Lucian Simmons researches a painting's history of ownership, called the provenance.

Simmons told Strassmann that they can establish custody of the painting because the Nazis kept detailed records and the Monuments Men did a good job tracking them down.

To determine custody, the team looks at the back of each painting to find the Nazi inventory code.

“So on the back of this painting you see the initials ‘BoR58,’ and that stands for ... Embassy Rothschild number 58,” said Simmons.

It matches a Nazi document from 1940, when the painting was stolen.

"It describes as Italian 15th century, imagery number BoR number 58," Simmons said.

Edsel took Strassmann to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It exhibits a dozen paintings recovered by the Monuments Men, like a van Goyen landscape.

"This is one of thousands of pictures confiscated by the Nazis from collectors in France," Edsel said.

The Monuments Men found Nazi thefts hidden all over Europe, from castles to salt mines.

"They moved them to so-called collecting points and then returned them to the original owners,” said Simmons. “Without them, these paintings would not be on the wall today."

But thousands more works were never recovered.

Edsel told Strassmann that he believes “the treasure hunt's really just beginning.”

At the Sotheby’s auction, the four recovered paintings sold for a total of $1.5 million, but the Monuments Men's saving of European culture is priceless.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.