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Art Rescued By ‘Monuments Men’ At San Diego Museum of Art

Above: "The Monuments Men" starring and directed by George Clooney opens in area theaters this weekend.

In the new movie "The Monuments Men," George Clooney plays an art conservator who assembles a ragtag group (of actor friends) to rescue artwork looted by the Nazi's in the midst of World War II. It's based on a true story, sometimes called the greatest treasure hunt in human history.

"Madonna of the Roses" by Pseudo Pier Francesco Fiorentino. ca. 1485-90. Tempera on panel, Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation, 1973

In the film, as in real life, the "monuments men" rescued more than 6,000 works of art from a salt mine outside of Salzburg, Austria. Two of the paintings from that salt mine are now owned by the San Diego Museum of Art.

Looking at them, you’d never know they were looted and stored in a salt mine.

"Being so destructive and criminal in their looting, the Germans did take care of the art they stole," explained Dr. James Grebl, associate curator of research, archives and provenance at the museum. The works were crated well and meticulously logged.

Grebl says the Nazis preferred salt mines for hiding the looted art. "Because they are below ground, safe from bombing, and they have very level temperature and humidity," said Grebl.

Inside that same salt mine was the looted Rothschild collection and Michaelangelo's Madonna of Bruges (the latter figures prominently in the film).

Looted art was also stored in remote castles and monasteries throughout Europe. In real life, the “Monuments Men”, were a group of over 300 men and women from thirteen nations. Many were museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and eventually returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis.

"Cardinal Etienne-René Potier de Gesvres," by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni. 1758. Oil on Canvas. Museum Purchase 1983.

The Cardinal

An 18th century portrait of a portly French cardinal is one of the rescued works now owned by SDMA. It was painted by Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, "the most fashionable elite portrait painter in baroque Italy at the time," said Grebl. The painting is especially impressive for the detailed lace on the cardinal's vestments.

Though stored in the salt mine, this painting was not looted. It was purchased on the art market in Paris at the end of 1940 by one of Hitler's agents. Hitler was planning a massive museum, called The Fuhrer Museum, in his hometown of Linz, Austria. He was trying to accumulate two good representations of almost every important artist’s work for the museum.

The Nazis stored artwork they owned along with looted works in order to preserve it all for The Fuhrer Museum.

Madonna and Child

The other rescued painting at the SDMA was looted by the Nazis. It was stolen from the collection of a wealthy Viennese industrialist who was Jewish. He owned the largest distilleries company in Europe. It's a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus, who is holding a goldfinch in his hand. The bird symbolizes Jesus' crucifixion in Christian mythology. It's titled "Madonna of the Roses," and was painted sometime in the 15th century. The painter is not known. Scholars have attributed the work to "Pseudo Pier Francesco Fiorentino," because it's similar to work produced by Fiorentino.

Both paintings are on view now. Present your ticket stub from the movie, and you'll get a discount on the price of admission to the museum.

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