Robert Edsel: The Wall Street Journal: He Drills for Answers

May 1st, 2013

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The Wall Street Journal
May 1, 2013
By JOANNE KAUFMAN

The way Robert Edsel tells the story, it all began in 1997 on the Ponte Vecchio. He’d recently sold his oil-and-gas exploration business for $37 million, and moved to Florence with no grand plan except to find a grand passion.
[image] Zina Saunders

“I’d always been interested in art and architecture, but I’d never had any courses. And I thought, ‘Well, I’m in Florence and there are all these art-history professors, so I should go around and learn about the subject.’ I was reading about 10 books a week because I had the time,” said Mr. Edsel, 56, who’s tall and lean (a former nationally ranked tennis player, he still logs regular court time with his good friend Rod Laver) and has a shock of white hair that he keeps futilely shoving back from his forehead. But what you mostly notice is the intensity. That and the apologetically long answers to any and all questions.

At one point in his tutorial, Mr. Edsel became immersed in “The Rape of Europa,” a chronicle of the Nazis’ looting and theft. “I remember standing on the Ponte Vecchio. I knew I wasn’t a World War II historian, but I knew enough to know that Europe had been beaten to pieces,” he said, sitting at a conference table in his downtown office here. “So if the continent was in shambles, how did all these works of art survive? They didn’t have legs. They didn’t go hide on their own. So I started asking people in Florence, and they all said ‘that’s an amazing question.'”

The onetime oil man has been drilling for answers ever since, first with “Rescuing Da Vinci” (2006), a book of photographs, and then with “The Monuments Men” (2009), an account of a special Allied force—museum directors, curators and conservators—who risked their lives to keep the world’s masterpieces from falling into enemy hands.

A film adaptation of “Monuments Men,” co-written, produced and directed by George Clooney, who also stars with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, is due out in December; Mr. Edsel is confident that the movie will give a nice lift to the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, the nonprofit he established half a dozen years ago to safeguard the legacy of his “protagonists” and to help complete their mission of returning stolen treasures to their owners.

And now Mr. Edsel has a new book, “Saving Italy,” a companion volume of sorts to “The Monuments Men.” His original plan was to tell both stories between a single set of covers, “but when I was writing ‘Monuments Men’ and it got to 500, 600, 700 pages it was clear that something had to go.

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