One day in 1996, while living in Florence, Italy, I crossed the Ponte Vecchio -- the only bridge not destroyed by the Nazis as they fled the city in August 1944 -- and wondered how so many monuments and great works of art survived the most destructive war in history, and who were the people that saved them? I couldn't see then that the quest to answer this seemingly simple question would consume the next seventeen years of my life.
The Monuments Men story involves the most thrilling and dramatic adventure I had ever heard about or known. It remains so after all these years. George Clooney and Grant Heslov have done a masterful job bringing these heroes' exploits to life in their soon to be released film, The Monuments Men, based on my second book of the same name. This film will entertain and inform the public about these epic but little known events of World War II, and introduce them to the men and women who saved so much of the world's beauty which we cherish today.
In the closing months of the war, this small group of scholar-soldiers -- museum curators, art historians, educators, architects, and artists themselves -- discovered almost five million cultural objects, so many of which had been stolen by the Nazis and hidden in salt mines, caves, and castles. What began as the greatest theft in history quickly became the greatest treasure hunt.
The Monuments Men and women spent the next five years sorting through this vast amount of material and returning it to the countries from which it had been taken. Each nation then had the responsibility of returning it to the rightful owner. However, hundreds of thousands of works of art and documents remain missing including priceless masterpieces by van Gogh, Raphael, Degas, and other masters. Where is it? How do we complete the mission of the Monuments Men by locating and returning these items to their rightful owners?
Much of what is missing is in countries that once formed the Soviet Union, taken there by Soviet Red Army troops and Stalin's "Trophy Brigades." But thousands of items found their way to the United States, France, England, and other countries, picked up by displaced persons wandering from place to place in a daily struggle to survive, or some curious soldier looking for a souvenir of his wartime experience.
In 2007 I founded the Monuments Men Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, to help illuminate the path home for these missing objects, regardless of how they were acquired. Working with George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and the great team at Sony, we have created a toll free number -- 1-866-WWII-ART (1-866-994-4278) to enlist the help of the public in locating missing works of art and documents, some of which we've posted on our website, supportthemonumentsmen.com.
The public has the answers; the public knows where all these missing objects are, but as people so often tell me, no one has ever sought their help; no one has ever provided them with direction on how they can help. Fortunately, times have changed. Walk in the footsteps of the Monuments Men and help write this final chapter of World War II history by contacting us about items you may have or know about. To learn more about the work of the Foundation, please visit monumentsmenfoundation.org.