Robert Edsel's Blog

Blog entries for the ‘Robert Edsel’ Category

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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Support the restoration of the Canonica di Belforte!

November 13th, 2014 | 2:18 pm

Dear Friends,

Help me support the restoration of the Canonica di Belforte in Italy! We have only until the end of November to show our support. The Canonica di Belforte is in urgent need of restoration.

If you’ve read my last book Saving Italy then you will remember the “Flying Priest” Don Guido Anelli. The Canonica di Belforte is the building in which Don Anelli used to meet and supervise the other partisan fighters, those brave Italian patriots who risked and lost their lives during the dark days of 1943-1945.

Don Guido Anelli, far right, shortly before Christmas 1944. (Sergio Giliotti Collection)

“What are we without our history? Preservation of the Canonica di Belforte presents us with an opportunity to not only restore an important building of the Middle Ages, one that still possesses its original roof of stones, but preserve the meeting place of partisan fighters and their leader, Don Guido Anelli, who played a critical role in contributing to the defeat of German forces in Italy during World War II.  This important building gave birth—and was a place of refuge—for those brave Italian patriots who risked and lost their lives during the dark days of 1943-1945.  Its preservation will serve as a reminder for us all that freedom is not free.”

Please, show your support to our friends of Circolo Belforte and vote for the restoration of the Canonica di Belforte. Your vote will give the Canonica a chance to win a restoration project sponsored by FAI – Fondo Ambiente Italiano (the Italian National Trust).

Just click HERE and vote away!

Unfortunately the wesbite is only in Italian, so here are some easy steps to guide you through your vote:

–       Click on the green button on the right, where it says “VOTA” with a thumb up
–       This will take you to a registration page and you can choose whether to log in through your Facebook account (easy) or to create a new account
–       To create a new account, click on the orange button on the left and enter your information as requested (Name, Lastname, Postal Code, Email address, Username, Password and Retype Password). Make you sure you also select the box confirming that you’ve read terms&conditions.
–       Click the green button that reads “REGISTRATI” and that’s it!

–       A confirmation email will be sent to your inbox. Make sure you click on the orange button “CONVALIDA IL VOTO”  wihtin the email body to confirm your registration and then log on back to the website and vote!
–       Enter your newly created username and password by clicking on the green button in the top right corner of the website that reads “ACCEDI”

The small town of Belforte in Parma (Italy) and I thank you for your important support!

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The Field Report: Week of June 20, 2014

January 13th, 2014 | 7:00 pm

Here are few topics that prompted discussion in the office this past week:

1.) Infrared imagery shows Picasso’s The Blue Room hides a secret painting (The Guardian)

2.) The ruins of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh are on the long list of things being affected by the terror group ISIS (Liberty Voice)

3.) Happy Birthday Mona Lisa! You don’t look a day over 500. (The Huffington Post)

4.) An 89-year-old retiree and former Nazi guard has been arrested for what he says was an ‘involuntary’ post at Auschwitz (New York Times)

5.) Eccentric heiress Huguette Clark’s untouched treasures head for the auction block (NPR)

6.) The Baptistery of San Giovanni may show up on this week’s “Best Dressed List” thanks to world-renowned designer Emilio Pucci (Luxury Daily)

*…and a few things you may have missed:

7.) Take a look at the paintings behind one of the most iconic Monuments Men photographs, which can also be seen on the cover of Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men.

8.) This great photo of the Monuments Men in action! LIFE’s William Vandivert in the spring 1945, shows American soldiers loading recovered paintings and sculptures — reportedly stolen by Hermann Goering himself — into the back of a truck, in hopes that they might be returned to their rightful owners. (TIME)

9.) The Italian Club of Dallas, Texas will host a presentation on the Monuments Men next Monday, June 23, 2014. Special guests include the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art‘s Director of Development Ashley Bennett Jones and Senior Researcher Elizabeth Hudson. Event details can be seen here and tickets may be purchased here.

View last week’s Field Report here!


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Saving Italy!

April 15th, 2013 | 9:26 am

Saving Italy will be published on May 6th but we are giving away signed copies of the book this week before you can buy it. Follow Robert Edsel on Facebook and Twitter for your chance to win!




Daniel Craig Joins George Clooney’s Monuments Men; Dujardin, Murray, and Blanchett Confirmed to Co-Star

November 2nd, 2012 | 4:24 pm

George Clooney has lined up an incredible cast for his next film, Monuments Men. As we previously reported, the story centers on a group of art experts selected by the U.S. Government to chase down the stolen art of Europe during World War II. Aside from the terrific premise, Clooney, who co-wrote the film with partner Grant Heslov, will star alongside a cast that includes Daniel CraigJean Dujardin, Bill Murray, and Cate Blanchett. Dujardin, Murray, and Blanchett had previously been mentioned in connection with the film, and Craig is a strong addition along with other new cast members John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Downton Abbey‘sHugh Bonneville.

According to Deadline, filming is set to begin on March 1st, and Alexandre Desplat will be handling the score. The rest of the crew from Argowill be on board as well, because this movie wasn’t sounding awesome enough.
Here’s the synopsis for the source material, Robert M. Edsel‘s non-fiction novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
At the same time Adolf Hitler was attempting to take over the western world, his armies were methodically seeking and hoarding the finest art treasures in Europe. The Fuehrer had begun cataloguing the art he planned to collect as well as the art he would destroy: “degenerate” works he despised.
In a race against time, behind enemy lines, often unarmed, a special force of American and British museum directors, curators, art historians, and others, called the Monuments Men, risked their lives
scouring Europe to prevent the destruction of thousands of years of culture

Focusing on the eleven-month period between D-Day and V-E Day, this fascinating account follows six Monuments Men and their impossible mission to save the world’s great art from the Nazis. [Amazon]

As reported by Matt Goldberg on


Hallowed Be Their Name

June 6th, 2012 | 11:46 am

(George Clooney, Robert Edsel and Grant Heslov)

June 6 is the sixty-eighth anniversary of the D-Day landings that marked the beginning of the Western Allied invasion of German-occupied northwestern Europe. About 160,000 Allied soldiers came ashore that day, almost half Americans, many braving a hailstorm of bullets, artillery, and mines. The blood stained beaches of Normandy, France served as a testament of their heroism.  9,387 American men, many just teenagers, are buried at the American Cemetery located on the once German-held ridge above Omaha Beach where they fell.  Those that survived would carry the memory of their fallen comrades with them into Germany as they liberated the people of Europe – and those in the death camps – from the tyranny of Hitler and Nazism.

By July 4, the Allies had put ashore more than one million soldiers including a forty-six year-old art restorer named George Stout, the man who more than any other developed the idea that lead to the creation of the Monuments Men.  This handful of cultural preservation officers worked alongside troops to protect churches, museums and other historic structures from the destruction of war, in particular by Allied forces.  Soon their efforts would concentrate on locating some of the millions of cultural objects – paintings, sculpture, church bells, library books, and religious objects – stolen by the Nazis.  In the course of their journey two Monuments officers would be killed during combat.  Their mission would survive the war’s end by almost six years.  By 1951, the Monuments Men had returned more than five million stolen objects to the countries from which they’d been taken.

(Monuments Men Bernard Taper, James Reeds, Harry Ettlinger, and Horace Apgar remembered for their efforts for saving Europe's art during World War II at the Congressional Resolution Ceremony on June 6, 2007)

Today is the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization I founded to preserve the historic legacy of the men and women who served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section during World War II.  The announcement of this organization took place at the United States Senate on the occasion of Resolutions unanimously passed by both Houses of Congress that for the first time honored the service of these heroes of civilization.  Four Monuments officers joined us for that special occasion and represented the other 345 officers of thirteen nations who served this great cause.

Since that time the Foundation has been honored in numerous ways including its receipt of the National Humanities Medal, our nation’s highest honor for work in the humanities, presented by the President of the United States at a ceremony in the White House.  The publishing of my two books on the Monuments Men – Rescuing Da Vinci, and The Monuments Men:  Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History – have reached readers in more than eighteen languages.

Many wonderful consequences that will further honor these heroes have since accrued.  My new book – Saving Italy – about the efforts of the Monuments Men in the cultural cradle of civilization, will be published next year.  Soon The National World War II Museum will construct a permanent exhibit about the Monuments Men as part of its Liberation Pavilion.  And work is underway by George Clooney and Grant Heslov on their film, based on my last book about the Monuments Men, which will reach a global audience.  These developments ensure that these heroes’ legacy will forever be known and honored.  Their service expands our understanding of the achievements of “The Greatest Generation.”  This day reminds all people who enjoy freedom, and the arts, of the debt we owe the men and women who struggled so mightily to defeat the greatest threat to civilization of the twentieth century.