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The Nazi Treasure Hunter

Robert Edsel was just another Dallas guy who made a pile of oil money. Now he's hunting down priceless stolen works of art.
illustration by Miracle Studios

There are those who believe that two of the world’s most high-profile missing artifacts are hidden somewhere in the Dallas area. It’s an interesting coincidence, given that the man leading the search for them and other cultural treasures lost since World War II happens to live right here.

The objects are reliquaries from the Dark Ages, sacred containers housing what are said to be the physical remains of saints. One is a crystal carved into the shape of a mitre. The other is a hollow gold cross. Not necessarily distinctive, as far as reliquaries go, but they are valuable, perhaps worth millions of dollars each. And as far as Robert Edsel knows, they could be in your attic. Or your mother’s attic. With the last of our World War II veterans now leaving us, more and more stolen objects from the war are turning up as estates are settled. If you find one of the reliquaries, though, please don’t put it on eBay. Call Edsel instead. It would be much better to return it to its rightful owner.

Robert Edsel’s specialty is finding and returning artifacts and culturally significant items missing since the Nazi era. He calls his work the great final chapter of World War II. He is founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, based in Dallas. The name of his organization comes from a heroic, if somewhat oddball, group of GIs responsible for rescuing more than 5 million cultural objects stolen by the Nazis. Edsel has made it his mission to tell their story and to continue their work by finding what’s still missing and sending it home. His work has also led to two books and a documentary film, which is why on March 1 he will receive the Texas Medal of Arts in a biennial awards ceremony that recognizes the state’s most outstanding artists and philanthropists.

Though Edsel is in his 50s and his hair has gone white, he looks and carries himself with a youthful intensity like he could still be in his 30s. Efficient and directed, he recounts the skepticism he meets with the glee of a man used to having the last laugh.

“People would say, ‘Who is this guy Edsel that he thinks he’s found a story that Steven Ambrose missed, that Tom Brokaw missed, that everyone else who’s written about history has missed? Either it’s got to be a puff piece story that he’s blowing completely out of proportion, or he’s just completely wrong!’ ” he says. “But when you look at the scale of what these guys accomplished, finding and returning millions of pieces of cultural objects, including some of the world’s greatest art treasures, you’ll see that this really is the great untold story of World War II.

“If they hadn’t rescued them, so many of the greatest works of art of all time would be lost forever. It wouldn’t be the same civilization we have now. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans was so impressed with the story, they’re about to announce the creation of a permanent exhibition about the Monuments Men. What I want now is for the president of the United States to acknowledge their contribution, before they’re all gone.”

Like most people who grew up in the shadow of World War II, Edsel assumed all the stories about the war had been told. Besides, even if there was a big story no one had heard, he didn’t see how it would ever fall on his shoulders to tell it. Edsel wasn’t a historian. He was just a guy in the oil and gas business.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1956, Edsel grew up in Dallas. He attended St. Mark’s School of Texas and then SMU, where he studied finance. He also made a name for himself playing nationally ranked, professional qualifying tennis. After graduating in 1979, he went to work for an independent oil and gas producer. He learned the business quickly and soon struck out on his own, assembling oil and gas leases as drilling prospects for other exploration companies. In 1986, Edsel consolidated his oil and gas operations into a new company named Gemini Exploration Company, which pioneered the use of horizontal drilling technology.

For years, Gemini remained a small operation. Then, in the mid-’90s, the company suddenly became profitable, and its workforce went from eight to nearly 100. At that point, Edsel decided it was time to do something else. He sold Gemini’s assets for a hefty sum and moved to Europe with the intention of immersing himself in the world of art and culture.

After living for a while in Paris, Edsel settled in Florence. There he engaged an art professor to guide him around the city. “I told him I wanted to see the city through his eyes,” Edsel says. The long path that ultimately led Edsel to the Monuments Men began one day when Edsel was looking at the Ponte Santa Trinita, an exquisite elliptic arch bridge that spans the Arno River and was designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati, a student of Michelangelo’s. There are five such bridges that cross the river in Florence, but the Ponte Santa Trinita is the most beautiful of them all. The discussion with his professor led to a day in September 1944, when the retreating German army unceremoniously blew up four of the five medieval Florence bridges, including the beautiful Ponte Santa Trinita. Edsel had assumed that the war had not touched Florence and that all five bridges were, naturally, the originals. But, in fact, the Ponte Santa Trinita was a reconstruction, barely older than Edsel himself.

He learned that Florence had actually taken a lot of bomb damage from air raids, Allied artillery bombardments, and street fighting. So why, then, did the city look much as it did before the war? How had the paintings in the museums escaped destruction? They couldn’t have just grown legs and walked away. Someone had to have rescued them.

“I was embarrassed,” Edsel says, “not that I didn’t know the answers, but that until that moment, I hadn’t even thought to ask the questions. I decided then and there to learn all I could on the subject.”

He found The Rape of Europa, Lynn Nicholas’ 1994 book about the Nazis’ plundering of works of art during World War II. Edsel already knew that the Nazis had a thing about art and that many had gone overboard helping themselves to stolen artwork, but he wasn’t sure why that was such a big deal, especially in light of everything else they did. After all, to the victor go the spoils; all armies plunder. But what made the plundering different, Edsel learned, was the massive scale on which they carried it out.

Adolf Hitler dreamed of being an artist, and when he unleashed upon Europe the greatest, bloodiest war in the history of humanity, he called it a battle for civilization. But the civilization he envisaged was a strictly Germanic one, a product of his own megalomaniacal imagination. Hitler’s dreams for the future included refashioning tawdry old Berlin into Germania, a gigantic new “world capital.”

For his Austrian hometown of Linz, Hitler’s plans were only slightly more modest. So that no one there ever forgot the local boy who’d made good, he planned to remake it a shining new city, with, among other things, the world’s largest and greatest museum. It would be called the Gemäldegalerie Linz, or the Führermuseum, and even before he unleashed his blitzkrieg on Europe, he sent out a clandestine army of art experts to survey the galleries and museums of all the soon-to-be-conquered nations. They made lists of the paintings that would be confiscated and hung on the Führermuseum’s walls. Not long after the lists were completed, Hitler attacked Poland. Within a year, most of Europe was his. And so was much of its art.

photography courtesy of Newscom
The Rape of Europa was such an eye-opener for Edsel that he decided to turn it into a documentary. “So I flew to Washington and knocked on the author’s door. ‘Hi,’ I said, ‘I’m Robert Edsel. I really like your book, and I think a documentary should be made of it.’ ‘Oh?’ she said. ‘What do you know about making documentaries?’ ‘Actually, I don’t know the first thing about making documentaries,’ I told her. ‘But I do know about getting things done.’ ” It turned out that was the right answer, because there were already some people trying to make a documentary out of the book, but they were bogged down with all kinds of production problems. Edsel stepped in and largely took over the film, which was released in 2006 and ended up winning numerous awards.

In the course of working on the film, Edsel began learning the answers to the questions he’d first asked that day in Florence. He learned about two daring, but largely forgotten, French heroes: Jacques Jaujard, director of the French National Museums, and his accomplice, Rose Valland, who not only kept track of all the artwork the Nazis were stealing but also found ways to circumvent them. After the liberation of Paris, the secret information Valland had gathered had a pivotal impact on the later discovery of looted artwork from France. Edsel also interviewed many of the surviving American GIs who’d later rescued the paintings, under the auspices of the Allied armies’ Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program—the Monuments Men. Though they were two separate groups, Edsel realized their work was so tightly linked that it was really one group and one great, mostly untold story, full of derring-do and heroics. But it was, unfortunately, largely outside the documentary’s scope.

Time was running out. The GIs he needed to talk to were now in their 80s, and Edsel knew that if he didn’t tell their story, it would soon be lost forever. Using teams of research assistants all over the world, he began assembling a large collection of photographs and documents relating to the subject and locating and interviewing more surviving Monuments Men.

Edsel left Europe and, after living for a spell in New York, moved back permanently to Dallas. His first project was Rescuing Da Vinci, a large book of photographs from the war, which, for the first time, told the story of the heroic Monuments Men. But all the publishers he approached rejected it. Edsel was confident in the material, in the appeal of these unsung heroes, so he published it himself. Rescuing Da Vinci, released in late 2006, was reviewed in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and featured on Charlie Rose and CNN. When he came to publishers with a second project, they were no longer quite so reticent. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, published in September 2009, was both a critical and commercial success and is now being translated into many languages.

Edsel was asking, and answering, all of the questions.

High up on the exposed brick walls of the converted warehouse on Dragon Street where the Monuments Men Foundation has its offices, hang large photographs from the war. A couple of them show smiling, helmeted GIs holding up famous paintings. In one, an officer stands behind some paintings, a .45 on his hip, looking very businesslike. In another, a soldier stands nearby, brandishing a submachine gun. There is a photo of generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley deep inside a salt mine, examining a rack of paintings.

But one photograph is particularly poignant. It is of a U.S. Army rabbi chaplain standing on a ladder next to a 10-foot-high stack of Torah rolls. One of the many ironies of Hitler and the Nazis is that though they may have murdered 6 million Jews and destroyed countless synagogues all across Europe, they were nevertheless scrupulous in collecting and preserving thousands of Torahs. It was one of the tasks of the MFAA program to see that these and other Jewish religious artifacts found new homes with the surviving Jewish community.