Cantwell, Colleagues Work to Recognize America’s ‘Monuments Men’

Bipartisan bill would award Congressional Gold Medal to men and women - including 2 Washingtonians -- who worked to protect cultural artifacts during World War II

In light of the upcoming release of “The Monuments Men” movie this week, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and her colleagues are pushing for bipartisan legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the men and women who worked to protect cultural artifacts during World War II.

Cantwell is a cosponsor of bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) in December 2013 awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Monuments Men,” a group of approximately 350 men and women from 13 countries who are credited with preserving, protecting, and restoring millions of pieces of artwork, sculptures, and other cultural artifacts in Europe during World War II.

“This is a long-overdue honor for the men and women who risked so much to preserve countless cultural treasures from destruction during World War II,” Cantwell said. “Americans owe these heroes a great deal of gratitude, including two leaders from Washington state – Theodore Heinrich, an art historian who was born in Tacoma, and Sherman Lee, who was a professor at the University of Washington and Associate Director at the Seattle Art Museum. Without their uncommon courage, some of the world’s most renowned artworks may have been lost forever. Our bipartisan legislation and this new film seek to remind Americans of this chapter in history and to commend this group for their heroic efforts.”

Two of the ‘Monuments Men’ had ties to Washington: Theodore Allen Heinrich, an art curator who was born in Tacoma; and Sherman E. Lee, an expert on Asian art who worked at the Seattle Art Museum and taught at the University of Washington. The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Cantwell, Lamar Alexander (R-TN) John Boozman (R-AR), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Jim Risch (R-ID) and was introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Representative Kay Granger (Texas).

“Incredible men and women from Missouri and across the world fought to protect and preserve millions of invaluable cultural artifacts from devastation during World War II,” Blunt said. “I’m excited to see their compelling story adapted into film, and I’m hopeful that through this movie and this bipartisan legislation we can encourage more Americans to learn about the rich history of these works of art and the remarkable legacies of the Monuments Men.”

“Today we are able to enjoy numerous works of art done by the some of the world’s most renowned artists thanks to the heroics of the Monuments Men who helped rescue them from the Nazi regime and preserve them for future generations. I’m proud to support this legislation that highlights the remarkable story of the sacrifice they endured on a mission to protect pieces of history,”
Boozman said.

“I’m incredibly proud to honor New Jerseyan Henry Ettlinger, a surviving member of the Monuments Men, for his work to recover, protect, preserve, and return innumerable works of art and artifacts that might have disappeared or been destroyed during WWII and even more proud that I can call him a friend,” Menendez said. “I know I share in his excitement and look forward to seeing their amazing story captured in film.”

“The brave men and women whose story is told in ‘The Monuments Men’ are truly unsung heroes of World War II,” Moran said. “Their passion and courage is responsible for safeguarding and preserving some of civilization’s greatest cultural and artistic achievements amidst the destruction of war. I am proud to join my colleague Sen. Blunt in working to award the Congressional Gold Medal to those whose legacy of protection for the sake of the next generation are finally receiving the recognition they deserve.”

Additional Background on the Monuments Men:

The Monuments Men served in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Western Allied military effort. They were initially charged with protecting structures, such as churches, museums, and monuments, from destruction. Their responsibilities later shifted to recovering art and artifacts stolen by Nazis across Europe. Today, there are only five living members of the Monuments Men.

Works from many of Europe’s major artists – including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Pablo Picasso – were plundered by the Nazis and added to their private collections. Some of the notable pieces preserved by the Monuments Men include Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s David and Madonna and Child. By 1951, they had recovered or restored nearly five million cultural artifacts.

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Roberts Commission to help the U.S. Army protect cultural works in Allied occupied areas. General Dwight Eisenhower told his commanders that “inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve,” and he ordered his commanders to safeguard those treasures.

The story is the subject of multiple books by author Robert Edsel, the most recent of which is The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. While living in Europe, Mr. Edsel became interested in how the monuments and artwork survived the devastation of World War II. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Board for the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. The upcoming movie is based on Edsel’s book.