In the closing days of World War II, the Monuments Men, whose story was depicted in the George Clooney film, recovered 39 photo albums of Nazi-looted art from a Bavarian castle.
The albums were introduced into evidence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials and then turned over to the National Archives.
But a few years ago, the nephew of a deceased U.S. soldier brought another album into the offices of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.
"We collected ourselves after the surprise of seeing this," said Robert M. Edsel, chairman of the Dallas-based foundation. "We, like our friends at the National Archives, were under the assumption that there were just 39."
On Thursday's 69th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the 3-inch-thick leather-bound album, taken as a souvenir from Adolf Hitler's retreat as the war came to a close, was turned over to the archives at a ceremony featuring one of the six surviving Monuments Men.
"This album is just the tip of the iceberg for hundreds of thousands of cultural items still missing since World War II," Edsel said, underscoring the importance for families to scour attics and closets for historical treasures.
Added senior archivist Greg Bradsher, "This is additional evidence that there is stuff out there."
The presentation of the album, which weighs about 8 pounds and includes black-and-white photographs of French paintings, comes as legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Monuments Men has gained more than two-thirds of the House and Senate as co-sponsors.
The Monuments Men were roughly 350 men — and women — who worked to return art treasures to their owners.
One of the unit's survivors, Harry Ettlinger, 88, a German Jewish immigrant who lives in New Jersey, attended the ceremony, standing next to a photo of himself, a 19-year-old in uniform in a German salt mine, posing next to a recovered Rembrandt self-portrait.
At a news conference at the National Archives building, he noted that the Rembrandt had earlier been on exhibit at a German museum three blocks from where he lived in the 1930s, but he had never seen it because Jews were barred from the museum.
"I finally got to see it," he said.
The album is one of what is believed to be about 100 created by the staff of Alfred Rosenberg, a Hitler confidant, to catalog looted paintings, jewelry, furniture and other objects. (Rosenberg's diary was recently discovered by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum after a years-long search. In it, he boasts of the "Jewish art treasures" his staff confiscated with a value estimated at 1 billion reichsmarks, or about $250 million.)
"These are the presentation albums that those working for Hitler — Rosenberg in particular — would assemble to say, 'Look what a good job we're doing, my Fuehrer,'" Edsel said.
A letter representing the family from which the painting was stolen and an inventory number is noted beneath each image in the album.
"So R is Rothschild, object No. 437," Edsel said, referring to the Rothschild family.
As it turns out, the first photo in the album shows French artist Nicolas de Largilliere's "Portrait of a Woman," one of the paintings featured on the cover of Edsel's book on the Monuments Men. The cover shows soldiers carrying paintings down the steps of the Neuschwanstein Castle.
One of the paintings in the album, Nicolas-Antoine Taunay's "Landscape with an Aqueduct," can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The Texas man who inherited the album from his uncle — and who did not want to be named — knew it was "something that was taken from Hitler’s home in Berchtesgaden as a souvenir," but not its historic importance, Edsel said.
The man asked what Edsel was willing to pay for the album. But Edsel persuaded the man to donate the album to the foundation, which he did in 2006, to be turned over to the archives.
"Sometimes, with the soldiers and their heirs, it's a simple matter of me explaining to them what it is, why it's important, why they can't sell them, what they should do with it," Edsel said in an interview.
The donation brings to 43 the number of albums at the archives' College Park, Md., complex. Edsel donated another album in 2007 and two more in 2012.
Edsel said he hoped the film based on his book would raise awareness of lost historical treasures. "Nothing can raise worldwide awareness like a Hollywood feature film," he said.
Edsel was relieved to finally turn over the album to the archives, noting he brought it to Washington in a box covered with a swastika.
"It has caused some interesting moments at airport security," he said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times