Here's the little known story of the Monument Men who hunted these treasures, as they identified and cataloged works of art and cultural artifacts.
"The looting of Europe's public and private collections by the Nazis beginning in the 1930s propelled a small army of art experts under the auspices of U.S. forces to launch a search and rescue of works of art that had been stored in salt mines, caves and castles to protect them from the ravages of war."
The team of 350 individuals from many countries tracked down millions of works of art and their story is now told in Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe's Great Art, America and her Allies Recovered It, by Robert Edsel of Dallas, which highlights 12 of the group's surviving members.
In 1939, some European institutions swung into action after Germany attacked Poland. The Louvre's curators moved 400,000 works out of Paris in just a few weeks, and kept moving them throughout the war.
American art experts had the support of President Franklin Roosevelt during WWII for their effort to preserve European art. The president established a commission leading to the 1943 creation of a monuments, fine arts and archives branch of the Allied armies.
The book covers the peripetetic travels of the Mona Lisa, of works confiscated for the art museum to be built for Hitler in Linz, Austria, and a stash of some 6,000 works in a salt mine near Salzburg.
Read the story of a German-born Jewish refugee to America, Sgt. Harry Ettlinger, who was valued for his language ability and became one of the Monument Men.
"Among the thousands of artifacts Ettlinger helped rescue was a Rembrandt self-portrait that a museum in nearby Karlsruhe had placed in the mine."
Edsel spent about $2 million of his own funds as he researched archives, churches and museums; and he published the book himself. Since January it has been on Amazon and in bookstores. There is even a movie in the works.
Many of the Monument Men returned to America and became art museum leaders.
Do read the rest of the story here.