Robert Edsel's Blog

Blog entries for the ‘World War II’ Category

“Rose Valland: Resistance at the Museum”

January 14th, 2014 | 11:00 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



The Met Meeting

December 20th, 2013 | 12:01 am

“Now, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the worst attack ever on U.S. soil, the tension had turned into an almost desperate need to act. An air raid on a major American city seemed likely; an invasion by Japan or Germany, or even both, not out of the question. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Japanese galleries were closed for fear of attacks by angry mobs. At the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, small gold and jeweled items were removed from the display cases so as not to tempt firemen with axes who might enter for an emergency. In New York City, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was closing at dusk for fear of visitors running into things or stealing pictures in a blackout. Every night, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was moving paintings to a sandbagged area, then rehanging them in the morning. The Frick Collection was blacking its windows and skylights so that enemy bombers couldn’t spot it in the middle of Manhattan.” – The Monuments Men

On December 20-21, 1941, museum leaders from across the country met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to discuss plans to protect their collections.

At the meeting, Paul Sachs issued a resolution, stating:

“If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we… must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds.”

In hindsight, we know that a further attack on American soil never occurred. However, this meeting had lasting effects: it served as the birthplace of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section. After the Met meeting, Monuments Man George Stout and Harvard Professor Paul Sachs continued to reach out to museum leaders to develop a plan of action for when the Allies would inevitably arrive in Europe, for it had become obvious that it was the cultural treasures of Europe, not America, that would need protection. The Monuments Men were the embodiment the eloquent words Sachs spoke in December 1941.

To learn more about this historic event, read The Monuments Men.  __________________________________________________________________________

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70th Anniversary of the Near Destruction of ‘The Last Supper’

August 15th, 2013 | 10:12 am

Earlier this summer I sat down with my friend Nick Mueller, President and CEO of the National WWII Museum, and discussed measures taken to preserve works of art in Italy during the war, including the precautions that ultimately saved ‘The Last Supper’ in Milan from destruction during the August 15/16, 1943 raid.

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70th Anniversary of the near destruction of ‘The Last Supper’

August 15th, 2013 | 9:43 am

 Today marks the 70th Anniversary of the August 15-16, 1943 raid on Milan which nearly destroyed Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece ‘The Last Supper’.  I describe this remarkable event in great detail in my new book Saving Italy; you can read an excerpt here:

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Helmutt Ruhemann and the Monuments Men

July 16th, 2013 | 4:01 pm

(photo from the Helmutt Ruhemann Archives at the Hamilton Kerr Institute)

Morwenna Blewett, a British art restorer, has been researching the numerous Jewish restorers who fled Nazi Germany and settled in London. There is an interesting article about her search on, here. One such restorer was Helmutt Ruhemann, considered a leader in his field at the time. In the 1930s, Ruhemann corresponded often with Monuments Man George Stout. While researching The Monuments Men, we came across their correspondence in Stout’s papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

While their letters in the early 1930s often focused on conservation efforts, in time Ruhemann began sharing the hardships of working under the Nazis. In July 1933 he wrote Stout saying, “In the museum nothing has changed up to now, but I think it is only a matter of days.” Later that year, Ruhemann and his family escaped to England. By 1938, the situation in Germany had vastly deteriorated. He told Stout, “Details are only now beginning to get known. A 67 year old uncle of mine has been in the concentration camp for a fortnight. We are not trying to get him over here…A number of friends got a note – after days of anguish – from the concentration camp, that the ashes of their relatives could be fetched for a fee of – I believe – 3 or 5 marks. A 70 year old aunt of friends of ours has been stabbed to death in her flat, etc. etc…we are trying to get our last friends out of that hell.” (Dec 4, 1938 letter to Stout, Stout Papers, Smithsonian AAA.)

Through his correspondence with Ruhemann and others. Stout was well aware of the situation in Europe – not only in Nazi Germany, but across the continent where every museum had taken precautions to protect their collections from the coming war. After America entered the war following Pearl Harbor, Stout led the way for the Monuments Men. You can learn more about his efforts in The Monuments Men.


You can learn more about Ruhemann on the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

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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!




April 12, 1945: A Day of Momentous Implications

April 12th, 2013 | 5:52 am

Having heard about the extraordinary discovery of most all of Nazi Germany’s gold reserves and paper currency, along with its vast cultural wealth from Berlin’s greatest museums and libraries, in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany, Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley left SHAEF headquarters in Rheims, France and made a visit to see it firsthand.  As the Monuments Men, led by George Stout, were urgently crating the works of art for removal from the mine, the generals descended in a rickety elevator manned by a lone German operator.

Left to Right: Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eisenhower (Photo Courtesy of National Archives)

Their sense of disconnection was palpable:  billions of dollars (in today’s currency) of gold bars and bagged coins sat stacked in one chamber adjacent to some of the world’s greatest works of art. Chests filled with gold fillings pulled from the mouths of murdered victims of the Nazi genocide sat idle, not yet smelted into bars to sit atop the Reichsbank horde.  Suitcases of silverware, another reminder of property stolen along with the lives of the owners, lined several walls.


General Eisenhower at Ohrdruf Concentration Camp (Photo Courtesy of National Archives)

Later that afternoon, the generals visited Ohrdruf, the first Nazi work camp liberated by American forces. Strewn before them were the corpses of the dead and emaciated figures of those near death.  General Patton, old “Blood and Guts”, had to lean against the side of one of the bunkhouse sheds as he was sick to his stomach from the horrors and stench of what he was witnessing.


President Franklin Roosevelt attending Yalta Conference in February 1945, less than 2 months before he died. (Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

After dinner, as the generals returned to their respective tents, General Patton overheard on the BBC the announcement of President Roosevelt’s death earlier that day.  At age 63, 12 years into his presidency, having led the nation through its most perilous fiscal crisis and a world war, Roosevelt was gone. He did not live to see the fruits of his leadership – victory – which would follow 26 days later in Europe, and 125 days later in Japan.

April 12, 1945:  a day that had momentous implications for our nation, the world, and the Monuments Men.


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Departed Hero: Mark Ritter Sponenburgh (b.1916-2012)

December 20th, 2012 | 4:35 pm

Monuments Man Mark Sponenburgh has passed away at the age of 95. A sculptor, historian, and educator, Mark Sponenburgh began his service with the MFAA in late 1945. He was previously enlisted in the Corps of Engineers as part of the 9th Engineers Command. Sponenburgh worked with the cartography section dictating and reproducing maps as the command prepared for D-Day and then crossed France, Holland, Belgium, and the Rhineland. After joining the MFAA, he was initially stationed at the Wiesbaden Collecting Point where he saw the famed Bust of Nefertiti, among other treasures, and was then assigned to the Alt Aussee mine. While at Alt Aussee, Sponenburgh supervised the transportation and packing of artworks and led the first armed convoy to the Munich Collecting Point, driven through the snowy, narrow roads of the Alps.

Prior to World War II, he was graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1940 and then began working as a sculptor.  After completing his military service, Sponenburgh attended the Ecôle des Beaux Arts in Paris. He later received an AM from the University of Cairo in 1952 and his Master’s from the University of London in 1957. In 1970, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the National Council of Arts.

Sponenburgh’s artistic career spanned many decades.  As a sculptor, Sponenburgh’s works focused on the relationships of nature to art, which in his eyes “glorify one another,” and particularly those of animals, the sea, and natural phenomena. Found objects and natural materials of the northwest also repeatedly appeared in his sculptures. One of his earliest works, Madonna in Walnut, received an award in 1941 at the annual exhibition of Michigan artists, and may now be seen at the Detroit Institute of Art.  Eternus, a bronze relief sculpture of waves, was installed in 1985 at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Oregon.

Sponenburgh also had a remarkable career as an educator. From 1946 to 1956 he was a professor at the University of Oregon and then spent the next year as a visiting professor at the Royal College of Arts in London. In 1958, Sponenburgh received a Fulbright research fellowship and taught in Egypt and Pakistan, then taught for two more years at the National College of Arts, Pakistan. While there, he redesigned the academic structure and gave new life to the then 75-year-old institution. It goes largely to Sponenburgh’s credit that today artists of international caliber are emerging from this institution.  He returned to Oregon in 1961 and embarked on a lengthy career at Oregon State University, where he was named Professor Emeritus in 1984. A colleague at OSU referred to him as a “superb lecturer and teacher, and most highly respected by undergraduate and graduate students alike.” He endowed the Sponenburgh Travel Award at the University which is awarded to an advanced graduate student every year. In 1990, Mark and Janeth Hogue Sponenburgh donated their art collection to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. The collection consists of over 250 Ancient, European, Middle Eastern, and Asian art objects.

I had the pleasure of visiting with Mark at his seaside cottage on two occasions, the latter accompanied by a good friend of ours, John Olbrantz, director of the HFM.  Mark lived the fullest of lives right up to the moment of his passing.  Our conversations resembled travel tags of the world as we asked each other, “Have you been to ….?”  Wonderful stories always followed, his the more fascinating.  This soft-spoken World War II veteran and Monuments Man will be missed by the many lives he touched.  With his passing there are now just six living Monuments officers.


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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


The Monuments Men Foundation Celebrates Five Years Honoring the Heroes

June 29th, 2012 | 12:13 pm

George Clooney, Robert Edsel, and Grant Heslov

This summer marks the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, an organization 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 on June 6, 2007, the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings, 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: the Monuments Men. 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 field, presented by the President of the United States during a ceremony at the White House.  The small staff of the Monuments Men Foundation has worked tirelessly to identify those who served as Monuments officers; facilitating the recovery and restitution of important cultural items; working with museums and collectors to help them continue historical research of items in their collections; creating an educational program to teach about the work of the Monuments Men; and sharing this story to help raise public awareness about their important contributions during World War II. 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.

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