During World War II, Adolf Hitler and his second-in-command, Herman Goering, stashed a staggering hoard of stolen treasure in a cavernous network of Austrian tunnels collectively dubbed the Altaussee salt mine. After the European theatre of the conflict drew to a close, American art conservationist George Stout entered the salt mine, where, as Jim Morrison recounts for Smithsonian.com, he found 6,577 paintings, 2,300 drawings or watercolors, 954 prints and 137 sculptures—not to mention thousands of cases filled with miscellaneous artifacts. However, one work of art stood out above all the rest: Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s 1432 "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb." The monumental, multi-paneled feast of religious iconography—better known today as the "Ghent Altarpiece"—was later deemed by art crime expert Noah Charney to be the “most influential painting ever made.”
Thanks to the efforts of Stout and his fellow art preservationists—345 men and women from around the world who were collectively known as the Monuments Men—the "Ghent Altarpiece" was safely restored from Nazi clutches to its original home in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. The Renaissance masterpiece was one of more than 5 million works of art the group, made up of museum directors, curators, art historians, archaeologists, architects and educators, reportedly rescued over the course of WWII. Now, Nick Squires reports for the Telegraph, the British army hopes to replicate the success of the original Monuments Men in modern-day war zones, and it has tasked former Gulf War tank commander Tim Purbrick with leading the 15-person art rescue squad.
Purbrick, who took park in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, will oversee the newly created Cultural Property Protection Unit (CPPU), which he describes to the Times’ Tom Kington as “the first renewal of the Monuments Men concept since they were disbanded after the Second World War.”
Unlike the original Monuments Men, the new team will focus its efforts on the Middle East, where ISIS’ campaign of destruction has devastated cultural heritage sites. The CPPU’s official mandate will include, according to Squires, protecting art and archaeology, stopping smuggling gangs and rampant looting, and notifying allied forces of key cultural heritage sites’ locations.
“The idea will be to identify sites so that we don’t drop bombs on them or park tanks on top of them,” Purbrick explains.
Purbrick says the team already includes an underwater archaeologist and an Arabic-speaking archaeologist. Additional recruits will come from the Army, Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Marines. Non-military experts are allowed to join if they first enlist in the Army Reserves.
Kington writes that the ultimate goal is to create a unit of individuals with a “high level of knowledge” regarding art crime, engineering and archaeology.
The original Monuments Men isn’t the team’s only source of inspiration: As Squires notes, the CPPU will build on the legacy of the Art Looting Investigation Unit, an American squad launched in 1944 by CIA precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, and Britain’s recent ratification of the 1954 Hague Convention, which provides for the protection of cultural heritage during wartime conflict. The British squad is also in contact with similar cultural organizations across the globe, including a unit of the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police force, and members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
Purbrick announced the Monuments Men revival during a restitution session held at the British Embassy in Rome last week. During the event, detective sergeant Rob Upham of the Metropolitan Police’s arts and antiques unit returned two stolen Etruscan artifacts to Italian authorities. One, a bronze sculpture of a household deity that was stolen from a Siena museum in 1998, was being auctioned for £3,000 ($3,955) when it was identified as a stolen object, while the other, a terracotta decanter linked to convicted antiquities dealer Giacomo Medici, was set to be sold for roughly £10,000 ($13,184) before Sotheby’s flagged its provenance.
The work won’t be easy. In addition to wartime damage, cultural heritage sites face threats ranging from natural disaster to overbuilding and sheer human error. But as the original Monuments Men showed the world, art—particularly when protected by passionate experts and civilians alike—has a habit of enduring in the face of destruction.