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Episode 20
The Monuments Men Foundation

  • 1 min read

Episode Description

01:07 - Anna Bottinelli, President of the Monuments Men Foundation, discusses her organization’s tireless pursuit to recover and return artwork stolen by the Nazis in continental Europe during World War II. The foundation, which maintains the legacy of the legendary Monuments Men, operates a tip line that is continually leading to the recovery of artwork even as we approach the eighth decade since the end of the war.

30:04 - A look at the week's top art headlines.


Craig: [00:00:10] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with Anna Bottinelli, president of the Monuments Men Foundation, about her organization's tireless pursuit to recover and return artwork stolen by the Nazis in continental Europe during World War Two. The foundation, which maintains the legacy of the legendary Monuments Men, operates a tip line that is continually leading to the recovery of artwork, even as we approach the eighth decade since the end of the war. At the end of the episode, I'll be taking a look at some of the week's top art headlines. But first up, the continued undoing of Hitler's deeds with Anna Bottinelli.

Craig: [00:01:07] Anna Bottinelli thank you for joining me today on the Artists podcast. You know, for those listeners who don't have any knowledge of your organization, kind of explain the Monuments Men foundation and who the Monuments Men were and how your your work kind of continues or is an extension of of the work they did?

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Anna: [00:01:27] Sure. Well, thanks. First of all, for inviting me to be a part of your podcast, and it's always a wonderful occasion to share a little bit more about the monuments, men and women and what they did during World War II. So the Monuments Men and women were a group of about three hundred and fifty people, mainly from the United States and the U.K., but actually representing 14 countries that during World War to join the Western Allies Army to protect the cultural heritage of Europe from destruction that a World War would inevitably bring. Now the mission as it started, it wasn't aimed at finding, saving and returning the hundreds of thousands and millions of works of art that the Nazis were actually stealing. The allies didn't know that there was a theft going on. All they knew was that there was a war happening on the European continent and that cultural sites of thousands of years old were in danger of being forever destroyed. And so these men and women, all in their established careers, these are not 18 year olds that are being drafted. These are accomplished men and women curators, librarians, artists, architects, many with families, with children, with careers at some of the places that we all dream of the met the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the cloisters. And they left everything behind because they they couldn't just sit back and watch everything. They loved, everything. They started being destroyed. And so they joined the army. They went on the continent in Europe, and they started assessing damage and working hand in hand with the army advising on what to do, what not to hit and how to avoid as much damage as possible.

Anna: [00:03:34] And it was they received a lot of pushback at the beginning, of course, the army officers, they were not going to listen to a bunch of architects coming here and telling us how to fight a war. And what really made the difference was the directive that General Eisenhower issued and 19 four at the end of 1943 and then again in nineteen forty four that instructed the soldiers to preserve monuments as far as war allowed. What Eisenhower said is that oftentimes historical buildings were being destroyed out of convenience and not out of necessity. So he was putting the responsibility on the soldiers to see if something had to be destroyed because there was no other way than there was one thing. But they shouldn't just go and tear down churches if that wasn't necessary. And this was transformative, of course. And then once the Monuments Men were on the continent, that's when they realized that there was actually a premeditated theft that had been going on since the early days of the war since really 1939, since Germany first invaded Poland, and that a lot of energy and a lot of time was going into plundering this country's stealing private collections museum collections for this desire that a Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, had of building his own Museum of the Reich that would would have all of the art that he considered was the highest manifestation of Western creativity.

Speaker3: [00:05:09] So this is what the Monuments Men do. Aside from from guiding the army on how to prevent more damage than it's necessary, they start tracking down information that allows them to get a sense of the scope of this theft, the magnitude and try to find where this art is being taken. And it's we talk of a treasure hunt, but it truly was a treasure hunt where they were looking for tips and leads. And eventually they find they find the art hidden in hundreds of salt mines, copper mines, castles throughout Germany, throughout Austria, northern Italy. And then when the war ends and the army goes, goes back home, the Monuments Men. That's when their work truly begins and for the next six years for. Nineteen forty five to nineteen fifty one. They will remain in Europe to inventory catalog all of these millions of works of art and return them to the rightful owners. Five million objects in all, it's a staggering number. I don't think we can even comprehend what it means to do something like this without the technology and the means that we have today. And despite returning that many objects, there are still hundreds of thousands of works of art missing. And so one of the missions of the Monuments Men Foundation is that of continuing this search, looking for what's still missing and returning to the rightful owners, whether that's an individual, a private collector or museum. We don't care. The Monuments Men didn't care, and we don't care. We just reunite missing property with its rightful owner.

Craig: [00:06:58] It seems like part of the problem is, you know, some of the work may have been destroyed by the Nazis for a couple of different reasons, right? I mean, Hitler had a distaste for what he called degenerate art

Anna: [00:07:10] That's right.

Craig: [00:07:11] Which would be contemporary work, probably 1915 or so. Yes. And also, you know, I believe he was kind of directing that if the allies were closing in, he wanted them to destroy the art so that it wouldn't be recovered. How do we know the likelihood of which pieces might still be out there and which we can't really anticipate ever finding again?

Anna: [00:07:35] Yes. Yes, that is. Certainly that's an important it's an important element to keep in mind so that we don't spend energies looking for something that was actually destroyed and we devote the efforts to recovering what we know, or we have reasons to believe that it survived in a way I think by now. 77...76 years have passed since the end of the war. So I think we can say that anything of massive size that hasn't resurfaced in these years, it probably was destroyed, something portable. There is a chance that survived and that some a soldier from whichever side Red Army, Americans, a civilian that just happened to walk by a bombed home and saw a painting lying on the floor. If it was portable and movable, then there is a chance that it was picked up and taken away if it was a work on paper. Paper is is easy to destroy or discard, and not even realize you have a drawing and throw it away, so a drawing would be harder to to to have survived all of these years. Or a painting on copper that is more likely that survived because it's a very sturdy medium. So I think there is some reasoning and some logic that can allow us to determine what could have survived and what could have not something a canvas, a canvas can be rolled up and and taken away so that there are chances that a canvas has survived.

Anna: [00:09:20] Something is ceramics. Probably, not. Probably it has shattered. So I think that allows us to at least divide up in groups the works of art that could still be out there and begin looking for them. And this is why I mentioned the drawings and works on paper how rare it is to still find them. We have just returned yesterday. In fact, I was in New York at the General Consulate in of Poland, in New York, returning to drawings that belong to the National Museum in Warsaw and that were picked up by a U.S. soldier and brought them home as souvenirs as a souvenir from his time serving in the war. And his family preserve them and then heard of our organization and contacted us and asked to help them find the rightful owners. And we we didn't realize at the time. But these are actually two of twenty one graphic series of drawings that the Polish artist created. And so the National Museum in Warsaw had 18 of them with the two that we found. No, there is only one still missing, so it's even more meaningful that these two drawings are almost completing a serious.

Craig: [00:10:43] I mean, it's amazing that 76 years on, just this week, we're able to make those discoveries in restitute these these images. In my mind, there are some things that will hamper the organization's progress, and that is maybe a family knowing they have something they're not supposed to have and they're afraid to come forward or a family that has something that has now become after seventy six years, part of their their family history, and they don't necessarily want to come forward and then there are others that knowingly have it and it's in a Swiss vault in the Swiss aren't, you know, very forthcoming about cooperating with allowing us to see what's what's in their vaults and how do we counter some of those things?

Anna: [00:11:34] Sure. I think the two examples that you brought forward the show both a good faith and a bad faith. So the the family that has something and is has a harder time cooperate. Usually it's because that item has been picked up in good faith during the war by their 18 year old relative, probably now deceased or in his final days of of his life. And that stands to represent not just his. I say his boat could be a service woman, but not just the service during the war, but also oftentimes when we speak with veterans, they attach to that item the memories of soldiers, friend of theirs that didn't make it back home. And so the object itself that they picked up has a larger meaning. But then when we explain to them the extent of the plundering that happened during the war, usually they come forward with it. We're not a law enforcement agency, so we're done. Nobody gets in trouble with us and we don't have any reason to rush. We usually, if a family has hesitation or seems to not understand why it's important to come forward and return something, we talk to them. We we recommend them reading some of the books that are found, the Robert Edsel wrote. That gives a really complete insight into what happened during those war years on the art front and and usually they turn around and they come forward.

Anna: [00:13:14] We return three paintings to a museum in eastern Germany about five years ago, and it happened exactly this. The guy that had it at first, he didn't want to give them to us. He said no, because they were going to be returned to a German museum. He said, No, I'm not returning anything to Germany. I mean, after all, they did. There is no way I will give you this paintings and give them to a museum in Germany. And then we spend some time explaining to him that actually, German museums suffered the most during World War II because Hitler took those collections destroy the collections that that he didn't like. You mentioned earlier that he considered degenerate or didn't fall into his idea of beauty and esthetic. And then at the at the end of the world, the Red Army came through and they plundered. So German museums suffered a lot. And this guy, it took him a few years. But then after he did his own homework and then he contacted them and said, You're right now, I'm ready. So I think when it comes to the families, giving them time usually works.

Anna: [00:14:17] When it comes to the people who have something in a vault, then that's what I refer to as bad faith because that is usually someone who's a collector and that knows that the painting has a murky past and is deciding to keep it in a safe place so that it doesn't enter the market. And then it gets discovered in a way so that I have more issues with their behavior as opposed to that of a family that has a lot of personal attachment to the item that needs to work through. Oftentimes, the collector with something in the vault has more of a material market value attachment to the painting, and in the end of the days, the higher standards that were were created in World War II of returning World War II is the first time that a winning army doesn't bring home the spoils of war. It's an incredible shift from the past. We have the Americans that win the war, and instead of loading airplanes and ships with hundreds of works of art, they return them to the countries that they had been taken from. And so we we're still continuing that process. We cannot now deny those high standards that have been set in place.

Craig: [00:15:42] So can you talk about the resources that the foundation has been able to accumulate over the years? And you know, all of this data that you've been able to collect, are you still finding clues in there or do the tips come in through your tip line like?

Anna: [00:15:58] Yes, well, we we we receive leads almost on a daily basis. When we have a return ceremony such as yesterday, there were more in the news and we receive more more leads because more people read the news and they then they think, Oh, maybe this is what I have followed in the same category or if we have a TV show like we had a few years ago hunting Nazi treasure that's being rerun every once in a while. Then when people watch that, then they context. So it comes and goes. But more or less every day we have something that comes in. We have a database with about three hundred leads that are worked on a on a priority basis. We have a small staff, so we work on the leads that are the most promising. If something comes in that is really, really promising that we might drop what we're working on and shift our attention to that one. It all depends on what other projects we have going on, but certainly the leads keep coming and we we look at all of them. It just might not be as timely as some of the people that contact us would hope. But this is a really tedious research, and COVID didn't help because all of the archives shut down. So of course, a lot of the research that we do need access to documents that are in archives, most of them in Europe, for obvious reasons.

Anna: [00:17:23] So the research is slow, but when something is returned, it really makes all of the all of the efforts worth it. And as far as other resources, well, the. When the Monuments Men Foundation was created in 2007, its main objective was that of preserving the legacy of these monuments, men and women and what they had done during the war. Preserve their stories, meet as many of them as they were still alive to have them recount in their own words what the experience was. And so in those early years, our founder, Robert Edsel, traveled around the country looking for as many monuments, men and women as he could find. He met a twenty one of them, a few in the UK, most of them in the United States, and recorded their stories. So our resources are not just this database of leads, but it's also this immense wealth of firsthand history. Oral history of the men and the women that were involved in this effort and who are now all disease except for one. And so their stories had to be preserved as before they passed. And now all of this incredibly valuable collection is at the National War Museum in New Orleans, which is building a permanent exhibition on the monuments men and women so their legacy will be forever preserved.

Craig: [00:18:51] You know, I know you're you're a nonprofit organization. If if people wanted to help your cause, what are the opportunities beyond the tips, you know, are you looking for volunteers to help you with research or are there ways for people to kind of, you know, come alongside and help your organization?

Anna: [00:19:09] Yes, that's that's my favorite question. Thanks for the question. So we we are not for profit and I'm like, we do. Our work has an impact worldwide, and yet finding the resources is quite a challenge. So we have we are lucky that we actually received so many offers of free help that is humbling. A weekly, we receive emails from from students all the way to retired FBI agents, attorneys. Really, the whole spectrum of people that are so enamored and passionate about what we do that they offer their free help now to even take the free help you need the staff and the time to sort through the contacts and create the opportunity. So unfortunately, we're not in a position to be able to welcome all of the free help that's offered, but that's certainly something that has been we've received from the very early years and something that we've been always incredibly appreciative. We have helped. We we have the chance every once in a while to actually take this free help that's offered depending on what we're working on. Sometimes the stars align and we need some expertise on something. And Hungary and of course, Hungarian might not be a language that we all speak. And then someone contacts us that has an expertise in Hungarian and like, OK, this actually works out great. Perhaps you can help us with a few document translations, so at times it happens. We usually keep track of everyone that contacts us and we might reach out to them.

Anna: [00:20:47] Even years later, they have contacted us and see if they're still willing to to give us a hand. So that is something that we do. But of course, the the the best way to help our organization is through financial support and we have donations that can be made through our website. But we have also a membership program that allows for anybody different levels to be more involved with our day to day work. And, for instance, that the return ceremony that we had yesterday, our patron members can attend the ceremonies and these are rare ceremonies, and they're usually just upon invitation, just in beautiful buildings to the consulate where we were yesterday is counted among the American Renaissance, the Renaissance buildings of America now. I mean, America is not really famous for Renaissance art, so that tells you what a pretty building it was and the hearing from the Poles, how meaningful this return was and how truly their hopes sometimes are to and after so many decades. They're wondering, will we ever find one more works of art? And then one shows up and the hopes and light again. And the ceremonies are always very meaningful and we cannot let anybody join. But those who are members of our organization and are supporting our organization that they can get access to this incredible once in a lifetime opportunity. So yes, I think there will be the the the most impactful way to help is through financial support

Craig: [00:22:29] At the end of World War II, some of the bigger name pieces of art that they were able to recover were like Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine or the Ghent Altarpiece. But what would you say are some of the top pieces of art that that still aren't accounting for that? If we were to find them really be just top of the headlines, meaningful discovery?

Anna: [00:22:52] Yes, that's another great question. So and I say great because we have actually worked for the last year on a product that we will launch early in January. So anybody who's listening to us, I tell them, sign up to our newsletter to be the first ones to know about this. It's going to be aimed exactly at the top works of art. There are still missing. And it's something that we're very proud of and where we can't wait to to to talk more about it. But the one work of art that I think everyone around the world is hoping to find is Raphael's  Of a Young Man from the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, Poland. That is actually the same museum of the Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine that you just mentioned. There is the famous photo of one of the Monuments Men holding the lady with an ermine in front of a train at a train station when they're returning it to Poland. Will the this portrait of a man by Rafael was taken in the same circumstances as the lady with an ermine, but then it got separated and the lady with her mind was found. The Raphael wasn't. And I thought in the movie The Monuments Men, George Clooney decided to show the soldiers, well the Nazis, burning it more as not because he thinks or we think that it's been destroyed. On the contrary, we don't think it has been destroyed, but it was George Clooney's provocation to see if someone will come out and say actually didn't burn and see if some leads that they took us in towards its discovery would come out. There are because it comes from Poland. The Rafales portrait of a man was actually the subject of a heated conversation yesterday when I was with this couple of representatives of the looted art division from Poland, and we all agreed that it's most likely out there. It hasn't been destroyed and we're working on some leads. And who knows there would be, I think, with all sorts of the the painting that would create the most news should it be found.

Craig: [00:25:11] How did you find yourself here at the head of the Monuments Men Foundation? What is what's your background and how did you find yourself in this passion project?

Anna: [00:25:20] Yes. Well, I'm from Florence, Italy, so my background is I'm Italian. I studied art in university, first in Italy, then in London at the Courtauld Institute, and what I was in between college and graduate school. I learned that there was an author, Robert Edsel, that was looking for a researcher to do some work on in archives in Italy about what happened during the war to the museum state collections and being from Florence and having grown up visiting the. S. on every other week and with my family and having studied art academically and realizing that there was a chapter of history that I had ever been taught. Even as an Italian, I had no idea that the works of art of the FEC had been first taken out of the museum and hit in the countryside of Tuscany and then taken by the Germans all the way north, three hundred kilometers on open top trucks, almost into the rye. And then that they were found in nineteen forty five by the Monuments Men and taken back to the museum. For me, it was just mind blowing. Such a fascinating piece of history wasn't taught to students, especially the young ones that would really usually history of art, at least in Italy. It's not considered a subject, an exciting subject for some very strange reasons.

Anna: [00:26:46] But if you add some a component about a war or a treasure hunt, all of a sudden it really brings it to life. And so I thought I was very intrigued by the subject and by the not knowing anything about it. And so I I work for Robert Edsel on his book Saving Italy, doing the research that he needed throughout archives in Italy, and that really got me hooked on the subject. And so when the book was finished because I knew Robert had the Monuments Men foundation, that in the background was doing research work and the thing with the Monuments Men and their families and gathering stories. Once the book was finished, then I I shifted more into the work that the foundation was doing. And so I started 10 years ago working with the foundation, first as a researcher and then getting more and more involved with its managing and administration. And then a couple of years ago, I was appointed president, so it has been a wonderful journey and especially enriching to really see all of the all of the developments of the foundation and lived through several of its successes. And now it's an incredible honor to be at the lead.

Craig: [00:28:01] So one more time, if someone wanted to follow the your your organization, if they have a tip, if they have, if they want to contribute, where's the best place to direct people's eyes and ears to to help you with your cause?

Anna: [00:28:18] So in today's world, I would say social media is always the easiest path for everyone. We are on all of the usual suspects as Monuments Men foundation for the preservation of art. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the works, the the tip line that I mentioned that people can call to actually report a lead that of a of an object that has a wartime connection is 1-8-6-6-World-War-II-Art, which is 1-866-994-4278, and that is a toll free tip line that works internationally and otherwise. We have our website Monuments Men Foundation dot org with an easy contact form, and we we tend to respond to inquiries within 48 hours. So we try to really just be on top of inquiries and requests and really work with anybody that contacts us.

Craig: [00:29:20] Well, Anna I've really enjoyed our conversation. I, you know, have such a deep respect for for what you guys are doing and what what the legacy that you guys are maintaining. And, you know, I really hope that, you know, our listeners can can help support, support your, your mission. And I really appreciate your time today and thank you. Yeah. Thank you so much. For joining me.

Anna: [00:29:50] Thanks. It's been a pleasure. 

Craig: [00:29:59] And now the news.

Craig: [00:30:04] It looks like the art world may have its hands on a new Rembrandt. It's not a new Rembrandt per say, but rather a painting that had previously been thought to be from the studio of Rembrandt. The revelations are just now coming to light because the painting hadn't been seen for more than 40 years due to an art theft and when it was stolen back in nineteen seventy nine, it was behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany. Out of the gaze of the mainstream art world, the painting was one of five stolen from Schloss Bridenstine in Ghouta by a disgruntled train driver who enlisted the aid of a married couple to smuggle the works out of the country. The descendants of those involved came forward to set things straight recently, and with the restoration of the possible Rembrandt now complete, experts are weighing in that the work is most likely by the hand of the master. The composition is the same as a painting in the collection of Harvard University thought to be by Rembrandt, but the German version exceeds the Harvard painting and quality leading scholars to now think that the stolen painting is the Rembrandt, and the Harvard painting is a copy painted by a member of Rembrandt Studio in a further attempt to write curatorial wrongs.

Craig: [00:31:25] LACMA is this week launching an exhibit called Black American Portraits, which examines depictions of black people in art in the U.S. over the last two hundred years. The exhibit draws heavily from LACMA's own collection and features over one hundred and forty works of art that span the period. The exhibits intention is to share a more complete story of African-American lives and achievements over a period whose narrative has always been dominated by the majority. The show, which runs from now until mid-April, coincides with LACMA's exhibition of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, painted by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively.

[00:32:12] New York was abuzz last week with the 2021 edition of NFT.NYC. The most notable confab each year for the NFT space. The conference grew tenfold this year, attracting more than 5000 attendees, including me. The conference boasted nearly 600 speakers across multiple concurrent venues in a five-block radius in midtown Manhattan. There was talk about projects, platforms, releases, technology, regulation and art. On Tuesday, I was in the room at the Palladium when Quentin Tarantino announced that he had digitally scanned his original handwritten manuscript of Pulp Fiction and his offering it as seven NFTs, one for each of the seven scenes in the film collect one or all seven. Networking abounded, as did the after parties. The event brought together the companies at work, building the NFT ecosystem, as well as the artists and collectors that have enabled its growth. My feedback is that the NFT space deserves an event that is capable of hosting the speakers, sponsors and networkers in one space with enough room to navigate. That certainly wasn't the case this year, but if the event grows another 10X, the organizers will definitely need a legitimate convention venue in 2022.

Craig: [00:33:43] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to art since you can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. If you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read a transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to Canvia Art. And click on the Podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Craig at Canvia. Art, thanks for listening. Do.

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