02/12/2014 03:43 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

The Monuments Man and One Recovered Painting in San Francisco

Now this is kind of cool. Just as George Clooney's new film The Monuments Men is opening, San Francisco's Legion of Honor museum has begun exhibiting one of the paintings recovered by that group of museum professionals who (as we see in the movie) were part of an operation during World War II to rescue artwork stolen by the Nazis, in large part for that famed art connoisseur Hermann Goering.

The painting shares a name with one of my favorite novels, Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. Painted circa 1620 by Anthony van Dyck, it also shares a name with several other van Dyck paintings. I don't know that we'll see this portrait in the movie, but Goering did have it in his hands at one time.

I wish I could tell you the story of how this painting was discovered and returned to its rightful owners, but I do know that it made its way into the collection of a couple named Roscoe and Margaret Oakes. When they donated their collection to the Legion, it brought the museum several works of Flemish, Dutch and British art of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; in addition to van Dyck, it includes artwork by Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

Interestingly, the director of the Legion of Honor during the war years, Thomas Carr Howe, was one of the Monuments Men himself. He worked under the man Clooney portrays (with a different name) in the film, Lieutenant Commander George L. Stout, head of the Monuments Men division in Germany. Howe, who was in charge of the Legion from 1939 to 1968, was with the group that unearthed loot stored in the Altaussee salt mine, near Salzburg, and hidden at Berchtesgaden, Hitler's hideaway in the mountains of southern Germany. He helped recover 15 cases of artwork stolen from Italy's Monte Cassino monastery. With all this, it still must have been quite a moment when he recognized one painting -- Portrait of a Young Woman, by Paris Bordone, a 16th-century Venetian artist -- that had once been exhibited at the Legion. Howe wrote about his adventures in a book, Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art, published in 1946. A few years after the war, he returned to Germany as a foreign service officer and oversaw the restitution of some three million objects.

If you want the full story of how all the artwork was taken, from art galleries, museums, churches and private collections in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Italy and more, I highly recommend reading The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, by Lynn H. Nicholas, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 1995. Also recommended is the documentary based on the book, titled The Rape of Europa as well. I don't know anyone who has seen this film, art lover or not, who has not raved about it.

Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F., 415.750.3600.