Back in the mid-1990s, Robert Edsel was in Florence, Italy, standing on the famed Ponte Vecchio when a question popped into his mind.
How did such a magnificent piece of art architecture, some of it more than 1,000 years old, survive the monumental European upheaval that was World War II?
“I was acutely embarrassed, not that I didn't know the answer, but that I had never thought to ask the question,” he said Tuesday afternoon, during an interview before delivering the Omnibus Series lecture at IPFW.
Trying to find the answer to that question led the now 60-year old oil and gas drilling entrepreneur and former professional tennis player into an unlikely career – tracing the fate of great art during the Nazi era and World War II.
The endeavor became one book and then another. And then, in 2014, the second book spawned a movie, “The Monuments Men,” directed by and starring George Clooney. The tale is about the dogged determination of a small group of American and British allies who first persuaded their leaders to largely spare culturally important buildings in pursuit of victory and then to try to recover irreplaceable art treasures from pillaging Nazis.
It's now believed the Third Reich was nonetheless able to steal more than 4 million items, many never found.
“That's likely an undercount,” Edsel said. “It was theft on an industrial scale.”
But, what keeps the World War II exploits from being “an asterisk in history,” Edsel said, is that destruction of artistic and cultural items remains part of a predictable pattern working its way through conflict zones today.
Despotic regimes destroy the important items of their enemies to humiliate them and obliterate their past.
“When we see cultural treasures destroyed, the next thing is murder and beheadings,” he said.
The Islamic State is case in point, he said. It has been profiting from what he called “looting operations” in countries it tries to conquer.
The damage can be seen in satellite photos that show pock-marked fields where people are paid small amounts to dig up archaeological finds that leaders sell for more. ISIS has even destroyed Islamic texts in museums because they say the books are false idols, Edsel said.
To maintain the quest for preserving cultural identity, in 2007, Edsel founded The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art in Dallas, where he grew up.
The organization's goals include finding art lost during World War II, restoring it to rightful owners, and educating museums and others about the importance of documenting chain of ownership of works between 1933 and 1946, when they might have fallen into Nazi hands.
And the foundation also is trying to reinstate as protocol that when a country invades another – even if the invader is the United States, as in the case of Iraq in 2003 – the invading country has a responsibility to avoid and protect cultural treasures.
“We didn't think about that (in 2003), and the United States (and others) were excoriated in the world press,” he said.
The United States wasn't bent on discriminating against Muslims, Edsel said – it's more likely that no one in a position of power thought to ask the question of whether Iraq's cultural items should be protected.
“And the reality is that the protection of these kinds of things in the future is going to depend ... more on people determined to protect them.”