It’s based on a non-fiction book about the U.S. Government’s efforts to recover art looted by the Nazi’s during World War II, “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” by Robert M. Edsel.
The book describes how an elite group of specialists (American and British museum directors, curators, and art historians) was formed into a military unit charged with ferreting out and bringing back the cultural patrimony purloined by noted aesthetes like Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering. The movie version (which also stars Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray) is a fictionalized depiction of those men and women who did work of such critical importance while the war raged around them.
I was looking up the background of Laurence Sickman, the longtime director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and learned he was such a hero. Sickman had already worked for the Nelson for 10 years at the time of America’s entry into World War II. He helped create the core collection at the gallery, including Caravaggio’s “St. John The Baptist” (1602), made possible by an 11 million dollar bequest from the William Rockhill Nelson Estate (I’m sure “the Colonel” would be thrilled by The Star’s current day obsession with breaking up “concentrations of wealth!”)
Thirty-five years ago I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Mr. Sickman when he told me a fascinating story from that era. He was in China in 1939 when war broke out in Europe. An English friend, Harold Acton, left to join the Royal Air Force and asked him to send all the Oriental art he had collected back to England.
Sickman made an executive decision that the wiser course was to send the collection from Beijing not to Europe but to Kansas City! He figured that as a citizen of a neutral country he would have a better chance of safe-guarding the collection rather than sending it into a war zone.
Acton, whom I met through Sickman, was furious at the time. It turns out to be a brilliant decision because all Acton’s Oriental art sat out the war in the basement at 45th and Oak. All Acton’s European art, by contrast, left at his parent’s home in Italy (where I met him in 1979), was looted by the Nazis and he spent the next twenty years trying to get it back.
The movie is a tribute to people like Laurence Sickman, whose courage and initiative in war was as impressive as his scholarship and discernment in times of peace.