The real-life story of the Monuments Men


American GIs, under the supervision of Capt. James Rorimer, carry paintings down the steps of Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Germany, where about 21,000 items stolen by the Nazis from French art collectors were recovered.


George Clooney and Matt Damon head an all-star cast in the new movie "The Monuments Men," about a group of World War II heroes who did it all for art. The film is based on the research of a man we first told you about in January 2008. With Rita Braver we take another look:

It was brazen and outrageous: the Nazi push to destroy and loot art all over Europe.

That looting spree -- tons of works taken from both personal and public collections -- was perhaps the great pillage in history.

"If you like extraordinary treasure hunts, it's got something for everybody," said Robert Edsel. "There's no way you can't be interested in this story."

It's a story that haunted Edsel ("I like to think of it as a passion, some say obsession"), an oilman from Dallas, Texas. By age 39 he was a multi-millionaire and ready for a change of pace. He sold his business and moved to Italy. 

How did he become interested in this subject?

"I was walking across one of the bridges in Florence one day, the Ponte Vecchio, the one bridge that wasn't destroyed during World War II by the Nazis," he said. "And it occurred to me, almost this epiphany: how did all these great works of art survive the destructiveness of World War II? And who were the people that saved them?"

Germans soldiers are pictured holding Botticelli's masterpiece, "Camilla and the Centaur," taken by the Nazis from the Uffizi in Florence. National Gallery of Art

What he learned staggered him!  Not Jewish, and with no relatives caught up in the Holocaust, he spent millions of dollars of his own money to write a book called "Rescuing Da Vinci," and co-produce a 2006 documentary titled "The Rape of Europa."

For one thing, there was the systematic way the Nazis had gone about stealing art -- how, for example, Hitler's second in command, Hermann Goering, made repeated visits to the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris.

"He could have a glass of champagne, smoke a cigar, and make these selections of works for his own collection -- just take 'em," said Edsel. "Load 'em up on his trains, load 'em up on the planes, and send them back to Germany."

But what really cut through to Edsel was that, while the Nazis were stealing and sometimes destroying treasures, the U.S. was making heroic efforts to safeguard art and architecture, even creating special maps to tell pilots the structures they should avoid.

And when the war was over, there was another extraordinary effort, to return the art to its rightful owners.

Under the command of Gen Dwight Eisenhower, a band of men and women, including some 200 Americans, was assigned to the task. Many of them art historians, they became known collectively as the "Monuments Men."