A monumental undertaking

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By Linda Lipp/ lip@kpcmedia.com

Robert Edsel was living in Florence in the late 1990s, studying art and architecture — something he’d always appreciated but hadn’t had time to do before — when he had an epiphany.

The former owner of a successful oil and gas drilling business, who also at one time was a nationally ranked tennis player, was standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the only bridge there not destroyed during World War II. He began to wonder how it was that so many works of art and cultural treasures had survived the most destructive war in history.

“I wasn’t embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer, but I was hugely embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder,” he said.

He started asking friends he’d made there if they knew the answer – they didn’t. His quest to find the answer led him to discover the “monuments men,” an unsung group of World War II era American and European men and women who’d walked away from successful careers and families to go into harm’s way and do their best to save what art they could.

“These treasures around the world, they have not survived by accident. They have been preserved by people who came before us determined to give us a chance to see them,” Edsel said.

The plan worked because the leaders of the U.S. and its allies, including presidents, prime ministers and generals, made saving Europe’s artistic and cultural heritage from the ravages of war a priority, he said.

Edsel spent several years learning what he could, marveling at how a story of such magnitude was not commonly known. In the process, he tracked down some 21 of the monuments men and women who’d participated in the effort and self-published “Rescuing DaVinci,” a mostly photographic book that gained considerable attention in media and publishing circles.

It was a visit to S. Lane Faisen Jr., who had traveled to Europe in 1945 to interview former Nazis about Hitler’s pilfered art collection, that led him to author “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.”

Faisen, a prominent arts professor at Williams College, was a week shy of his 99th birthday. He thumbed through “Saving DaVinci” and the two men talked for hours. When Edsel left, Faisen shook hands with him and said, “I’ve been waiting to meet you all my life.”

Edsel was a little shaken by the meeting, and even more shaken 10 days later when he learned Faisen had died. He went to the memorial service, and Faisen’s sons told him their father had called them in the day after Edsel’s visit and said,“Say your goodbyes. I’m ready to go.” He fell into a coma shortly afterward.

“I felt this passing of the torch, a sense of responsibility, I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” Edsel said. “I didn’t have the experience to do it but I had the passion to do it and I think that’s one of the things he recognized.”

“Saving DaVinci” had impressed the right people in the right places, so publishers were more willing to give Edsel a chance and look at “The Monuments Men.”

“It was a CV (curriculum vitae) for the one I didn’t have. My CV is that I know how to get stuff done. I wasn’t trained to be a professional tennis player, I wasn’t trained to do an oil and gas exploration business, I wasn’t trained to write and produce and do all the stuff I do. But I’m a hard worker and I ask a lot of questions and I have a knack for surrounding myself with good people. I’m passionate and I follow my passions. And that makes up for a lot,” he said.

“The Monuments Men,” published in 2009, has been translated into more than 25 languages and was the basis of a 2014 movie written, directed and starring George Clooney. Edsel’s third book, “Saving Italy: The Race to Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis,” was published in 2013 and debuted on the New York Times bestseller list.

Edsel also created the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. Its purpose is not only to recognize the legacy of the World War II monuments men, but raise awareness of the importance of safeguarding the world’s other artistic and cultural treasures during future conflicts.

Over the years, the foundation has located and returned more than 30 objects — priceless documents, paintings from museums, religious objects, books, etc. — that went missing during the war. Some have been found in private collections; others were brought home by soldiers as souvenirs. It gets tips almost daily through its toll-free line, 866-WWIIArt (994-4278)

“We don’t care how something got back here, our focus is to say thank you to the people come forward… identify who the rightful owner is and get it back home,” he said.

IPFW Omnibus Lecture Series

Robert Edsel, author of “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.”

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 14

Auer Performance Hall in the Rhinehart Music Center

The lecture is free but tickets are required and can be picked up in person at the Larson Ticket Office, located inside the Athletics Center. Tickets are also available online through the IPFW Box Office website. A $1 service fee will be charged per ticket for online orders.