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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

‘Monuments Men’ Author Robert Edsel Shares Incredible Story of World War II Unit with Capacity Crowd at Webb Center

When Robert Edsel was in living in Italy and heard about every major bridge across the River Arno in Florence being destroyed in World War II, he asked casually how so many priceless, fragile works of art survived.

It seemed nobody knew the answer. That launched Edsel, an oil and gas exploration entrepreneur at the time, on a research mission that led him to a small unit of fewer than 350 Allied soldiers, now known as the Monuments Men.

"I've been doing this for 16 years, and it's truly been a labor of love," Edsel said, during the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Lecture at Old Dominion University on Thursday, Feb. 20.

Edsel, author of "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History," the 2009 book that first focused attention on the brave actions of this unique unit of soldiers, delivered the Wallenberg Lecture as part of ODU's President's Lecture Series.

A capacity crowd of more than 1,000 attended the event in Webb Center, inspired in part by the Feb. 7 release of the movie "The Monuments Men," directed by and starring George Clooney.

Edsel said the incredible story of these soldiers, who risked their lives, is a true testament to their desire to contribute to the war effort in any way they could, "in the face of the most destructive conflict in history."

In his hourlong speech, Edsel recounted how the Monuments Men - officially the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) division of the Civil Affairs and Military Government sections of the Allied forces - came into existence.

Adolf Hitler's love of art (he was rejected from art school before enlisting in the German army in World War I) meant that the Nazis took care to store their looted treasure in places safe from conflict. As the war came to a close, there was a significant threat that these priceless treasures might be destroyed by the Nazis.

Edsel said the Monuments Men, accomplished professionals in fields including academia, history and art, volunteered to serve in missions where they would put themselves in harm's way in order to protect these treasures. Two of them died in combat during the war. "They felt they had an important opportunity to serve," Edsel said.

The Monuments Men remained in Europe for up to six years following the conclusion of fighting to oversee the complicated restitution of stolen works of art. During that time they played instrumental roles in rebuilding cultural life in the devastated countries of Europe by organizing temporary art exhibitions and musical concerts.

Upon returning home, many of the Monuments Men and women had extraordinarily prominent roles in building some of the greatest cultural and educational institutions in the United States. One of these brave soldiers, Everett Parker "Bill" Lesley Jr., became an art professor at Old Dominion.

A captain in the MFAA division of the Civil Affairs and Military Government sections of the Allied forces, Lesley was assigned to several posts in Germany immediately following World War II.

During his presentation, Edsel showed a picture of Lesley and other soldiers holding a picture of a Da Vinci painting, with bare hands, outside a train in direct sun, during a repatriation mission after the war. "That's not exactly how you would normally hold such a priceless treasure," Edsel said. "But that gives you an idea of the scope of the operation that these soldiers undertook."

After the war, Lesley studied at New York University. In the 1950s, he served as acting director at the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences (now the Chrysler Museum of Art) in Norfolk. From 1959-79, Lesley taught art at ODU, where he was later accorded the title of Professor Emeritus. From 1974-76, he also served as curator of decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

For his restitution efforts during and after World War II, Lesley was awarded the Chevalier, Order of Poland Restored (Polinia Restituta), and the Honorary Medal of Art and Science, House of Orange-Nassau (Orde van Oranje-Nassua), the Netherlands. He donated his papers, composed of documents and photographs related to his MFAA service, to the National Gallery of Art in 1979.

A former nationally ranked tennis player, Edsel began his career in oil and gas exploration. His company, Gemini Exploration, pioneered the use of horizontal drilling technology in the early 1990s. While living in Florence, Edsel developed a passion for art and architecture, and became curious as to how so many of the monuments and great works of art had survived the devastation of World War II. His interest evolved into an impassioned journey to unravel the secrets of the Monuments Men.

Named in memory of one of the legendary figures of World War II, the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Lecture, part of the ODU President's Lecture Series, is an annual address sponsored by the Marc and Connie Jacobson Philanthropic Foundation.

The President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring fascinating personalities who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Presenting discussion of timely topics, the series puts diversity first, offering an international lineup of authors and educators, business innovators and political figures.