A group dedicated to finishing the work of World War II's Monuments Men is betting on a deck of playing cards — and reward money — to help find missing works of art taken by the Nazis.
Inspired by the U.S. military's history of creating playing cards related to missions, the Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art on Wednesday announced the creation of the deck focusing on works — including paintings, sculptures and reliquaries — they believe still exist.
“What is needed is to raise awareness about what is missing,” said Anna Bottinelli, the foundation's president. “Because you might know of a friend who has a beautiful painting on the wall and you don’t even question that that painting belongs to someone else.”
The group, which is offering rewards of up to $25,000 for information leading to the recovery of each cultural object featured in the deck, will highlight a few of the cards each week on their social media.
Bottinelli said the foundation worked with museums, law enforcement and owners of lost art as they narrowed down which works to feature, which include those by Vincent van Gogh, Caravaggio and Claude Monet.
One, a pastel by Edgar Degas titled “Portrait of Mlle. Gabrielle Diot” that was taken by the Nazis from a home in France in 1940, is known to have been sold in the mid-1970s to an unknown Swiss collector.
“Many of these have resurfaced in the recent past — even as late as 2008 — in auctions," Bottinelli said.
The deck, being sold through the foundation and the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, is a nod to a U.S. military tradition that includes a deck featuring the most-wanted fugitives from the Iraq War and one from WWII designed to help soldiers identify aircrafts, Bottinelli said.
FBI Special Agent Chris McKeough, a New York-based member of the agency’s Art Crime Team, said he thinks there’s a misconception that because it’s been nearly 80 years since the end of the war, that most of the missing art has been found.
“There’s still a lot of artwork to still be on the lookout for,” McKeough said, noting that the Nazi's looting was “on a scale that is really hard to comprehend.”
McKeough said that in some cases, people haven't realized an artwork’s past until taking it to a gallery or an auction house.
“In those cases, we’ll take steps to seize it and hopefully repatriate the artwork,” McKeough said, adding that once such a history is uncovered, “owners are usually very willing" to have it returned.
“We can never undo the atrocities of the war, but any little thing that we can do to reunite one of these works with the heirs, it’s an important thing,” McKeough said.
Robert Edsel, founder and chairman of the Monuments Men foundation, said that for those who do realize they own looted art, "this is a chance for people to do the right thing, to come forward, to address the problem.”
Edsel started the foundation in 2007 to honor the Monuments Men, the group of men and women from Allied countries, many with art expertise, who served during WWII to protect cultural treasures as battles waged, and after the war helped return artwork plundered by the Nazis to the rightful owners.
He has written several books on the Monuments Men, including one that the movie “The Monuments Men” starring and directed by George Clooney was based on.
The foundation gets frequent calls from people wondering about objects from the war, and has over the years helped return more than 30, including a 16th century tapestry taken by a U.S. officer from Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat near the end of the war. The officer's family gave the tapestry to a German museum in 2016.
In addition to the 52 works of art in the deck, two cards — the jokers — each feature a set of Nazi photo albums of artwork which have missing volumes.
There's reason to hope someone might come across one: The foundation has already found five that had been brought home by U.S. soldiers after the war as souvenirs.
“It has always been a joy for us to see how much gratitude there was on both parties: The party that was returning something and the party that was receiving,” Bottinelli said.