A still from the film 'The Monuments Men'.
A still from the film 'The Monuments Men.'
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It was a case of art imitating life, and then vice versa. As cinemas in the U.S. showed trailers this week for George Clooney’s upcoming movie about the World War II exploits of a special American army unit charged with salvaging art treasures stolen by the Nazis, banner headlines in the news media announced the discovery of the biggest trove of looted art uncovered since that very same unit disbanded.

The star-studded film “The Monuments Men”, directed by Clooney himself, recounts the extraordinary tale of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) unit set up by the U.S. in 1943 to locate and recover works of art plundered by the Nazis all over Europe during World War II and to save them from looting by invading Allied forces as well.

A New York Times report Tuesday on the discovery of the sensational billon-dollar cache of looted art in the Munich apartment of the son of Nazi art seller Hildebrand Gurlitt quoted California professor Jonathan Petropolous as saying that it represented “the most important discovery of looted art since the Allies discovered the hordes in the salt mines and the castles.”

Many of those discoveries “in the salt mines and castles” were the result of the work of the Monuments Men who are depicted in the upcoming movie.

Based on a 2009 book written by Robert Edsel “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History”, the film features an A-List pack of Hollywood stars including Clooneyhimself, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean DuJardin and other well-known Hollywood stars.

In March of this year, in what was dubbed by the Hollywood press as “Jason Bourne replaces James Bond”, it was announced that Damon would be replacing British actor Daniel Craig, who had originally been cast to play James Rorimer, a Monuments Man who was a curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

It was Rorimer who located Rose Vallard, played by Blanchett, a French curator who ostensibly helped the Nazis catalogue stolen art but secretly helped the Resistance and Rorimer in their efforts to recover it.

Last week, a few days before news of the Munich stash was released, Clooney announced that the premiere of his film would be postponed from December 18 to February 7, thus dashing its hopes of being considered for this year’s Academy Awards – and possibly diminishing its chances of benefitting from the current spate of publicity in the wake of the Munich find.

Clooney cited a shortage of manpower and lack of sufficient time to make sure that the movie doesn’t come out “cheesy”. He added; “All we've ever said, from the very beginning, is that we wanted to make a commercial, non-cynical piece of entertainment."

The real Monuments Men walked the battlefields of Europe in the footsteps of invading Allied troops, but they were the unlikeliest of heroes, comprised of top art experts and museum curators. Following the war, many were appointed as founders and directors of some of America’s most prominent cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. One of the unit’s Jewish members, Lincoln Kirstein, went on to become a founder of the New York City Ballet.

Two of the Monument Men members were killed in action: Captain Walter Huchthausen, an American scholar and architect attached to the US 9th Army and Major Ronald Edmund Balfour, a British scholar attached to the 2nd Canadian Army.

Edsel, 57, who made his riches in the oil industry, became intrigued with looted Nazi art about 15 years ago, while living in Europe. In 2006, he co-produced the movie The Rape of Europa that detailed the Nazi plunder of European art. Among other things, the film trailed the fate of Gustav Klimt’s famous Golden Portrait, which was confiscated by the Nazis in Austria, returned to its rightful Jewish heirs after an extended court battle and then bought in 2006 by businessman and Jewish leader Ronald Lauder for a reported $135 million. It is on display today in Lauder’s Neue Gallerie in Manhattan.

In 2007, Edsel established the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, devoted both to the legacy of the World War II unit and to investigation of works of art still missing. In 2012, Edsel presented the US National Archives with two Nazi catalogues of looted art that had been presented to Adolf Hitler as a birthday gift. They had been taken as souvenirs by US soldiers stationed near Hitler’s Bavarian retreat at Berchtesgaden, and returned 50 years later to Edsel’s Monuments Men foundation.