Adolf Hitler presents Hermann Goering with The Falconer (1880), a painting by the 19th century Austrian academic painter Hans Makart/Photo Source: Lynn Nicholas
Before George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and John Goodman teamed up to save art from the Nazi's in "The Monuments Men" there was The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. First a book by Lynn H. Nicholas published in 1994, the text was adapted by directors Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham as a documentary of the same name in 2006.
The Rape of Europa traces the history behind the artwork lost during World War II and how it was found by the Allied forces in the years after during peacetime. The book is structured chronologically and begins by demonstrating the influence, money, and other means by which the Nazis collected various treasures before the regime transitioned into looting during battle as they occupied more territory.
Nicholas goes on to explore the Allied Forces defense against the Axis and their methods of protecting and preserving the art. Then Nicholas discusses the aftermath of the war, finding lost works, tracking them, establishing the rights to ownership of the recovered pieces and returning them by the American Monuments officers a.k.a the 'real' Monuments Men. Nicholas demonstrates the questionable practices of the Americans along with the atrocious acts of the Nazis while recalling the reverence and love of art from the people on every side of the conflict. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general non-fiction in 1994.
The film adaptation was made for $1.3 million half of which came from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the rest from the National Endowment for the arts and other foundations and investors. The film departs slightly from the book in its focus on Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann who pushed a decade-long legal campaign in 1998 to recover paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt that were looted by the Nazis. This touches on philosophical questions of ownership and whether something that is meant to be experienced by the public can be owned by one person as property.
For a glimpse of the greatest treasure hunt in human history watch the below trailer of The Rape of Europa or pick up a copy of the book by Lynn H. Nicholas.