Robert Edsel's Blog

Blog entries for the ‘Monuments Men’ Category

Monuments Woman Anne Olivier Bell Turns 100!

June 20th, 2016 | 1:00 am

Today is the 100th birthday of Anne Olivier Bell, one of just two living Monuments Women. Following the end of World War II in Europe, Anne was commissioned as a Major in the British Army and reported for duty to the British Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives headquarters in Bünde, Germany. There she coordinated day to day operations to recover works of art that had been stolen by the Nazis from caves and mine, where they had been hidden for safekeeping, including the spectacular discovery at Grasleben.

December 2007. At Winfield House, residence of the Ambassador of the United States to the United Kingdom, with Anne Olivier Bell and Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle. Photo Courtesy of Robert M. Edsel Collection.

Anne had another very successful career years later as a researcher for her husband Quentin’s book on his aunt, Virginia Woolf, and her own literary achievement, The Diary of Virginia Woolf. This five volume work consumed twenty-five years to complete.  It remains the definitive source on the life of Woolf.   For her achievements Anne was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She continues to devote time supporting the Charleston Trust, which manages Charleston House, country home of the historic Bloomsbury Group, an influential gathering of writers, artists, and philosophers.

The Monuments Men Foundation wishes Olivier, as she now prefers to be called, the very happiest of birthdays.

You can read more about Anne’s life at



Memorable weekend in Fort Meade with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command

May 17th, 2016 | 11:08 am

I’ve had many memorable experiences during the past thirteen years researching and writing about the Monuments Men and women, but few compare to my trip to Fort Meade, Maryland, to spend time with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command on the occasion of their 50th anniversary.  Civil Affair soldiers are doing remarkable work in conflict zones all over the world, in particular those with the 352nd, ranging from rescue missions like the one that followed the earthquake in Haiti, to protecting cultural property and other important monuments in Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.  Deployment of these volunteers to troubled spots around the world is increasing in frequency and duration to meet the ever growing needs.  Their professionalism and commitment to mission redefine bravery and service to others.  It was an honor for me to meet so many of them and listen to some of the challenges they must overcome.


With Brigadier General Alan L. Stolte, Commanding General of the 352nd, and Command Sergeant Major Earl G. Rocca

Brigadier General Alan Stolte, Commanding General of the 352nd, and Command Sergeant Major Earl Rocca, both distinguished combat veterans, kindly included me in one of their mid-day briefings before allowing me time to make a presentation addressing General Eisenhower’s leadership role in the preservation of works of art and monuments during World War II.  I also had a chance to discuss the experiences of the Monuments Men during World War II—both what worked, and what didn’t, and how we can learn from those experiences to do a better job protecting cultural property in conflict zones today.  It’s amazing how life comes full circle:  just that morning, I had a wonderful tour of the Fort George G. Meade Museum by its director, Robert Johnson, where I saw numerous photographs of a very young Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton taken in the 1920’s during their assignment to Fort Meade.

Mid-day briefing and Q&A

The role of those serving in the Army Reserve is greatly misunderstood by the general public.  Far from being weekend soldiers, these men and women are often on extended missions that place them in harm’s way alongside active duty soldiers.  Like the Monuments Men and women of World War II, those serving in the 352nd Civil Affairs Command often find themselves in operational deployments that take them into war zones including Panama (1989), Desert Shield (1990), Desert Storm (Iraq and Kuwait-1991), Somalia (1993), and Bosnia (1996).  They have been in continuous service post-9/11 with multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa.

More than 200 guests attended that evening’s Spring Formal wearing their “dress blues.”  I was honored to be included in the official receiving line and have the chance to greet each of them and their spouses.  Following dinner I delivered formal remarks to the audience along with my thanks for the many sacrifices they and their families make in defense of our nation and, as I pointed out during my comments, in perpetuating the legacy of the Monuments Men and women.  But the most poignant moment occurred afterward my remarks with the tribute to those killed in service.  “Historically, following battle, units are reassembled and a roll call is conducted to identify those soldiers that are wounded, missing, or killed in action.”  Having made that statement, Command Sergeant Rocca conducted roll call, stating each name three times while a photograph of that particular fallen comrade appeared on the screen.  By my count there were about seventeen names, including several women, who had been killed in action, another painful reminder that freedom is not free.

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50th Anniversary Dinner

Our nation is truly blessed to have such mature, well-informed men and women in uniform doing work that is vital to the best interests of our nation and people of good will everywhere.


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The Islamic State’s Murder of a Modern Day Monuments Man

August 25th, 2015 | 11:20 am

(As posted on on Aug 21, 2015)

Khaled al-Asaad, 83-year-old retired Syrian archaeologist known admiringly as “Mr. Palmyra” for his extraordinary knowledge of that revered 2,000 year-old Roman era city, has been killed.

Jihadists of the Islamic State publicly beheaded al-Asaad, and then hung his body by his wrists from a traffic light positioning his head on the ground below. Attached to his waist was a sign listing his alleged crimes: attending “infidel conferences,” and acting as “the director of idolatry” for his lifelong passion in documenting and sharing with the public the artistic and cultural history of Palmyra, his birthplace. Syria’s Director of Antiquities provided a more rational explanation: despite repeated questioning, al-Asaad refused to divulge the location of statues and other works of art that had been removed from the city for safekeeping prior to the arrival of Islamic State militants.

Palmyra, September 2010. (Photo Credit: AB Edsel)

The death of Khaled al-Asaad is not the first in the service to the arts during times of war. In March 1945, British Monuments Man Major Ronald Balfour, was killed by shrapnel relocating treasures from Christ the King Church in Cleve, Germany. The following month, machine-gun fire claimed the life of American Monuments Man Captain Walter Huchthausen while checking on a report of stolen art. Although scholar-soldiers, Balfour and Huchthausen wore military uniforms; al-Asaad was a civilian more than twice their age, armed with little more than his extensive knowledge of Palmyra’s once great civilization.

Khaled al-Asaad’s determination to protect Palmyra and its treasures parallels the service of the great French heroine, Rose Valland. From 1940-1944, this unassuming woman worked as a custodian of small Paris museum that the Nazis had commandeered for their looting operation, all the while spying on their activities. Twice accused and threatened with summary execution, Valland persisted, and fortuitously so. Her secret notes recording the arrival of stolen art and its subsequent shipment to Germany proved instrumental to the Monuments Men’s discovery of more than twenty thousand works of art. Valland would later join the Monuments Men and continue the search for missing works of art until her death in 1980.

The horrific death of Khaled al-Asaad, like those of Balfour and Huchthausen, underscores the high cost of protecting works of art and other cultural treasures during war. Balfour and Huchthausen knew this before volunteering; still, they wanted to serve. According to his son, Walid al-Asaad, al-Asaad knew it too, choosing to remain in his hometown despite ample opportunity to flee prior to ISIL’s encirclement of Palmyra.

Is art worth a life? It is a question that goes to the very soul of the work of the Monuments Men during World War II, and that of hundreds of volunteers, then and now, who have risked their lives to save our shared cultural heritage. Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that the answer must be “no,” stating clearly that a human life counts “infinitely” more. Monuments Man Captain Deane Keller, a 42 year-old professor of art at Yale University and an artist himself, agreed. Keller, whose three-year long military service in Italy included a year and a half in or near combat, once wrote, “no work of art is worth the life of a single American boy.”

But Keller made a critical distinction between risking one’s life to save a work of art versus risking one’s life fighting for a cause. Like his fellow Monuments Men, Keller considered it a privilege to represent his country to preserve the freedom of creative expression by artists just as he did preserving the greatest examples of what artists before him had created. General Eisenhower spoke of this during a 1946 speech stating, “That, for democracy at least, there always stands beyond the materialism and destructiveness of war the ideals for which it is fought.”

In making his case for cultural preservation to President Roosevelt in 1943, Monuments Man Lt. Commander George Stout said it clearly and dispassionately:

“To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to a particular people but also to the heritage of mankind. To safeguard these things is part of the responsibility that lies on the governments of the United Nations.”

Roosevelt agreed. Balfour, Huchthausen and now Khalid al-Asaad, honored those lofty ideals; the United Nations has not.

In a speech his death precluded delivering, Monuments Man Ronald Balfour made an eloquent and enduring case for the preservation of cultural treasures. Its timeless warning would have resonated with Khalid al-Asaad, who knew that few places in our world offer a richer window to the past than Palmyra.

“No age lives entirely alone; every civilization is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it.”

We ignore Balfour’s wisdom at our own peril.

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Happy Birthday to Monuments Man Rouben Sami!

August 15th, 2015 | 5:45 am

Today, I’d like to wish a happy 94th birthday to Monuments Man Rouben Sami!

I was privileged to meet with Rouben and his wife Lee at their home in Florida just this past year, the 21st? Monuments Man I’ve met and interviewed during my many years of research. His recollections about the work he did as Deputy Director of the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD) brought back a flood of memories for me about another Monuments officer I interviewed and came to love—Colonel Seymour Pomrenze.  In fact, it was Col. Pomrenze who recruited Rouben to assist with the daunting work being done at the OAD.

It was clear that Rouben loves to laugh. He joked about being one of the few workers at the Depot who had the use of a Jeep, saying, “All the officers were my good friends because they had no vehicles!” He also mentioned that, because he knew so many foreign languages, officers would shout, “Where’s Rueben? Get Rueben! He can talk to us!”

The five-floor Depot was home to approximately 2.5 million books and manuscripts, which the Nazis looted from more than sixty libraries across Europe and Russia. As Deputy Director between May and August 1946, Rouben was responsible for the successful return of hundreds of thousands of these documents and volumes to the their respective homelands.

Though they spoke many different languages and came from different walks of life, Rouben and his colleagues at the OAD shared common ground in their commitment to return every single object to its rightful owner.

Rouben hailed from New York City, but he was in fact raised in Palestine.  Not surprisingly, the return of Hebrew books and rare manuscripts stolen from synagogues and individuals carried with it special significance for him. He later said, “I loved the job because I was helping my own people.”

Thank you, Rouben Sami, for your devoted service as a Monuments Man. I join with thousands of others to wish you a happy birthday filled with many more years of wonderful memories.

Rouben’s wife, Lee, and I look on as Rouben Sami signs a copy of Rescuing Da Vinci. Each one of the Monuments Men and women I’ve interviewed has signed this book making it the most rare and treasured document among hundreds in the collection of the Monuments Men Foundation.


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Monuments Man Lennox Tierney passes away at age 101

June 18th, 2015 | 12:05 pm

Monuments Man Lennox Tierney has died, age 101. Only five Monuments officers are still living.  Of the twenty Monuments Men and women I have interviewed, only Tierney and Sherman Lee had served in the Pacific Theater, primarily in Japan. Fluent in Japanese, and a greater scholar of Asian art, Tierney was assigned to General MacArthur’s occupation headquarters as Commissioner of Arts and Monuments following the end of the war. In this role, he advised General MacArthur on all topics regarding arts, monuments, and culture, in particular the restoration of damaged cultural sites. He also photographed cultural sites, compiled reports, and served as translator to General MacArthur and his staff as needed. Tierney often worked independently at Occupation Headquarters liasing directly with other Monuments Men including Langdon Warner, Laurence Sickman, and of course Sherman Lee. He served in this position until 1952, but remained in Japan thereafter to continue his study of Japanese arts.

Lennox had a very long and distinguished career as a teacher sharing his lifelong knowledge and love of Japan and its cultural history with others.  When we met last year in Salt Lake City, Lennox—at 101 years of age—was in the late stage planning for another trip to Japan accompanying another of the many groups interested in learning more about this fascinating culture.  I marveled at his energy, drive, and enthusiasm.

Robert Edsel presents Lennox Tierney with an American flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol


With the passing of Lennox Tierney the world loses another remarkable member of the “Greatest Generation,” whose sense of shared sacrifice helped build the world we enjoy today.  Japan’s cultural heritage is richer because of Lennox Tierney; so too is the United States for introducing so many Americans to that country’s great treasures.  He will be missed!

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Eight Years Honoring the Heroes!

June 6th, 2015 | 10:57 am

Eight years ago, on the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings, I announced the formation of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.  Four Monuments Men participated in that ceremony.  Today only one of those four is still with us bringing the number of living Monuments Men and women to just six.  We always knew we were in a race against time to gather their stories and honor them.  What I couldn’t know at the time was the degree of success the Foundation would have in achieving its objective to raise worldwide awareness of theses heroes and honor them for their achievements.  One feature film, and two more books, would introduce their legacy to a global audience.  Through the advocacy of the Foundation they would receive honors from two different presidents and the members of Congress.  Soon they will receive the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian honor.

Bruges Madonna

In front of Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, June 2015

As I walk the streets of Bruges, Belgium on a day when we remember the enormity of the sacrifice of young men who fought their way onto the bloodied beachheads of Normandy, and the courage of their leaders—in particular General Eisenhower, who made that fateful decision to “GO,” I give thanks also for the handful of Monuments Men and women who selflessly volunteered for military service to help preserve so much of the cultural world we enjoy today.  The world we have inherited is profoundly richer for the great objects of beauty they helped saved, none more so than Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna which I visited this morning.

The Monuments Men Foundation team has accomplished much, but as the daily destruction and theft of cultural treasures in Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen remind us, much remains to be done.  Please join the Monuments Men Foundation and learn how you can help us reestablish the respect for the cultural treasures of others that defined the work of these scholar-soldiers.

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Good morning! Buongiorno! Guten Morgen! Bonjour!

January 14th, 2015 | 10:16 am

Good morning! Buongiorno! Guten Morgen! Bonjour!

I am proud to share with you that our Monuments Men Foundation website is finally available in four languages: English, Italian, German and French.


I hope that this will allow more people around the world to understand the heroic work of the Monuments Men during and after World War II as well as to embrace and support the mission of the Monuments Men Foundation. For the time being, some pages still remain available only in English, but I am confident that with time and with your generous support, we will be able to complete also those translations.


I would like to extend my special gratitude to François-Xavier Bernard  for volunteering his time to complete the French translation. Passionate of World War I and history in general (@ww1photographs), Francois-Xavier gave us his expert, generous and enthusiastic support and we are extremely grateful for it. We welcome your help and support at any time!




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“Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum”

July 21st, 2014 | 8:00 am

Rose Valland is one of the greatest and yet unknown heroines of World War II. After risking her life spying on the Nazis, day after day for four long years, Rose lived to fulfill her destiny: locating and returning tens of thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France. Yet her remarkable story, like much of her personal life, has remained unknown to the broad public… until now.

“This book, written by French Senator Corinne Bouchoux, was originally published in France in 2006. Ms. Bouchoux’s interest goes far beyond the wartime service of Rose Valland by delving into her personal life and post-war work to provide important insights about this fascinating and determined woman. Her research also proved helpful in confirming my understanding of the intense relationship between Rose Valland and the man who shared her wartime destiny, Monuments officer Lt. James Rorimer. The absence of books about Rose Valland in the English language has, until now, left us wondering how this ordinary woman mustered such courage to do extraordinary things even when, after the war, many in her own country simply wanted the story of Nazi looting to fade away and with it, Rose Valland’s contribution to history. It has therefore been an honor to translate and publish Corinne Bouchoux’s book and make it available to a much larger audience. – adapted from the book’s forward written by Robert M. Edsel, author of The Monuments Men

The complete biography of this amazing woman can be found in Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum. Click here to purchase!

Captain Rose Valland

The unassuming heroine of French culture during World War II, Rose Valland was an employee of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris who secretly recorded the movements of art and objects stolen by the Nazis in France.

Valland earned two fine arts degrees from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, and also studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She received art history degrees from both the Ecole du Louvre and the Sorbonne University in Paris. Despite her extensive education, she began work at the Jeu de Paume as an unpaid volunteer, with the title “chargé de mission.” Valland eventually became assistant of the museum and began receiving a salary in 1941.

In October 1940, during the Occupation of Paris, the Nazis took over the Jeu de Paume museum and began using it as the headquarters for the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg). There they stored paintings and other works of art stolen from private French collections, mostly those of Jewish collectors. Jacques Jaujard, Director of the Musées Nationaux, immediately instructed Valland to remain at work at the museum and spy on the Germans. It was initially agreed that she and a few assistants would be allowed to work in the Jeu de Paume to maintain Louvre records, but the Nazis soon reneged and instead allowed only Valland to remain. She therefore became one of the few French witnesses to the Nazi looting machine.

Valland kept a low profile at the building, due to her simple and quiet demeanor, and because the Nazis did not realize that she spoke German. Under the pretense of her duties maintaining the building, Valland was in reality tracking the shipments of ERR loot dispatched from Paris to locations throughout the Reich. In addition to intelligence she gathered on her own, Valland obtained information from loyal drivers, guards, and packers – passing precious knowledge on to Jaujard and the French Résistance. Hers was a dangerous and even life-threatening job, and she kept her knowledge closely guarded.

After the Allied invasion of France in June 1944, Valland finally confided the details of Nazi looting to Monuments Man James Rorimer in December of that year, who could do little to act on the information until Allied Forces established military strongholds in Germany. One of the greatest discoveries of ERR loot was at the castle of Neuschwanstein, where Valland’s documentation proved to be very helpful to Monuments officers by showing exactly what artworks belonged to whom, thus expediting the restitution process tremendously.

The French Commission de Récupération Artistique (Commission on Art Recovery) was formed in 1944, with Valland and Jaujard as prominent members. Well after the war’s end, Valland worked to locate and return artworks. She described her experiences in the book, Le Front de L’Art, which also inspired the 1964 film, The Train, starring Burt Lancaster. She received the Legion of Honor, the Medal of the Résistance, and was made Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government for her heroic efforts. The United States awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in1948, and she received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany as well. Valland was one of the most decorated women in France, but it wasn’t until 1953, after twenty years of service to the French museums, that she was finally awarded the title of “curator.”

Valland’s accomplishments were virtually unrecognized in France during her lifetime, and she died in 1980 in relative anonymity. She is buried in her home village of Saint-Etienne-de-Saint-Geoirs where the Association de la Mémoire de Rose Valland has been founded to honor her life and work.

For more information on Rose Valland, visit



A D-Day View from Monuments Man James Rorimer

June 6th, 2014 | 11:08 am

While tens of thousands of Allied troops were flooding the beaches of Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944), the Monuments Men were impatiently waiting to cross the English Channel for their chance to contribute. For Monuments Man James Rorimer, and future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the gravity of the situation gripped him that day:

“We are told that the invasion of Western Europe by overwhelming forces is underway…Now I am thinking of the combat troops and the task which is theirs. We older men are anxious on the one hand to help deal the death blow to tyranny, and on the other we think of our families at home and the obligations which we have as husbands, fathers, sons, and members of the peace-time community.”
-James Rorimer Letter to his Family, June 6, 1944

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The Field Report: Week of July 4, 2014

January 14th, 2014 | 9:00 am

1.) We found the Raphael! On a mint coin that it is. The new series from the Mint of Poland called “Missing Works of Art” deals with famous paintings and other art works that went missing during World War II. (

2.) British Library returns painted Renaissance book panel (The Art Newspaper)

3.) This exhibition currently at the UNESCO office in The Hague shows the intense impact of armed conflict on societies and their cultural heritage (UNESCO)

4.) Roll out!  Trajan’s Column as you’ve never seen it before (Italy Magazine)

5.) The Legal Evolution and the Private Market: How countries are successfully using the law to get looted cultural treasures back (ABA Journal)

6.) Candid, raw and moving: What it means to be an American to these people. (The New York Times)

*…and in case you missed it:

The real Monuments Man: Amazing story of the Jewish teenager who fled Nazi Germany but returned six years later as one of the art-hunters made famous by George Clooney film (Daily Mail)

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