This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rescuing Da Vinci

Robert Edsel’s book “Rescuing Da Vinci” chronicles one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods in Art History. During World War II the Nazi state engaged in a massive and systemic plunder of art treasures, stripping objets d’art from public galleries, churches, libraries and private owners. This book recounts the story of how art custodians and officials in a variety of European countries sought to protect their collections from discovery, theft or damage from aerial bombardment. And the tale reveals how the ruthless machinery of a totalitarian state was deployed to steal, or acquire ‘gifts’ and ‘loans’ through coercion.

In this relatively short episode in history a vast proportion of the greatest art treasurers of Western Civilisation were confiscated (one estimate is 1.5 million objects with 100,000 of museum quality still missing). Many of the works passed into private ownership or control of avaricious Nazi officials, with Herman Goring notorious as an instigator and leading beneficiary of the mass theft (he lined the walls of his home with great masters taken from across Europe). Adolf Hitler himself was the principal director of this whole affair, personally involving himself in planning of exhibitions of the trophies and sketching plans for a ‘Fuhrer Museum’ in his home town of Linz where he ultimately planned to house much of the plunder.

This story has been told before in other books in greater detail, but Edsel brings the drama to life in a very well illustrated and decent format book. This book was an independent publishing effort and yet Edsel has made few economies in producing a very beautiful tome. The writing is not conventional history treatment, it’s much more zippy, with Edsel weaving the tale together through a concourse of captioned photographs, illustrations of artworks and reproductions of wartime documents. While this is mainly a story of European tragedy, the author has a patriotic concern to highlight the part played by the United States in seeking to find, identify and repatriate stolen art to their proper owners (the Allied Armies formed a military unit that became better known as the “Monuments Men” or “Venus Fixers” among the troops).

Allied Commanders including General Eisenhower issued a number of orders: barring the trafficking or export of artworks; directing resources to support the return of works to their rightful owners; and asking that great buildings and architectural monuments be spared where possible from the collateral damage of war.

By the war’s end the Allied treasurer hunters had found over 1,000 repositories for the stolen works of art, including the Alt Aussee salt mines containing more than 6,500 paintings and Neuschwanstein castle which housed over 6,000 articles including jewellery and fine furniture. Unfortunately where the Soviet forces discovered horded Nazi loot, many of the rescued goods were brazenly stolen a second time.

To this day the consequences of the Nazi art binge are still with us, as new claimants come forward every year seeking return of artworks stolen from their families, or as museums and galleries uncover through research that the patrimony of certain objects in their collections may be tainted where there are unexplained passages in time where the trail of ownership runs cold.

As art books go this is an unusual one. It is not the definitive history of these events (much more could be said of some of the great collectors who were victims of theft, or of works that remain missing or in dispute), but it is the best illustrated history of this epic tale of greed, audacity and devastation. The satisfying epilogue to this story is that Mr Edsel is fortunately a dedicated/obsessive fellow and has been pressing on with a range of projects to tell other aspects of this quite significant story.

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 302 pages, 11 x 9.7 inches, nearly 500 illustrations (mostly b&w photos).

Two other books and one DVD on the same subject:

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