Robert M. Edsel has taken many turns in his life, from oil and gas businessman to bestselling author and advocate for art preservation.
The author and arts preservation advocate brought him to Odessa this week to speak at the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute’s Distinguished Lecture Series at the Wagner Noel Performing Arts Center on Tuesday. Edsel speaks 20 or more times a year in the United States and Europe.
During World War II, the Nazis plundered tens of millions of cultural objects and works of art from museums, churches and private collections across Europe. A small group of American and British men and women – museum curators, scholars, architects, archivists, librarians, some even artists themselves – were tasked with finding everything. They became known as The Monuments Men and their mission became the largest treasure hunt in history, according to a press release.
Edsel penned the true story of the heroes in his New York Times #1 bestseller The Monuments Men and collaborated with George Clooney to film it. Edsel is an internationally recognized advocate for the protection of cultural works and the return of fine art to their rightful owners.
He said the film achieved a key goal for him.
“It achieved what I had hoped, which was to give the world recognition of who these men and women were and to make the world aware of a very different aspect of World War II, of how much was at stake. And again it raises the question of what the world would have been like if things had turned out differently, if the destruction had consumed so many of these things,” Edsel said.
“When you have a George Clooney film and a cast like that that he put together with Cate Blanchett and Bill Murray and Matt Damon and whatnot. We had a film that was shown in 100 countries around the world. The book has been translated into 30 different languages. And like I said, it’s out there in the public lexicon – Monuments Men, Monuments Men and Women. As you know, we live in the most newsworthy world imaginable and it’s no small feat to add a phrase to the global lexicon, but it’s there,” Edsel added.
Edsel, who now lives in Dallas, grew up in Texas and began his career in the oil industry. He founded Gemini Exploration which pioneered the use of horizontal well technology and became one of the most active horizontal well drillers in the United States in the mid 1990’s.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Edsel said he had been in the exploration business for about 16 years, from the age of 23 to 39.
He attended the University of Georgia and two community colleges in Dallas and graduated from Southern Methodist University. He earned a degree in finance.
“But like I said, I really wanted to get out,” said Edsel.
He decided to go to Florence, Italy to study art and architecture. At the time, Edsel said, there were 40 different American universities with a campus in Florence, so there were plenty of art history professors who were available. He hired one of them to drive around town on Wednesdays and that was the start.
Edsel said he gets curious about things when he sees or wonders about something.
“Then I’ll start digging into it, and if I’m interested, yes, I’ll read everything I can get my hands on,” he said. “But that’s not usually my way of things. It’s more about wondering or tinkering with something, and then that curiosity drives it.”
He and his wife have the Monuments Men and Women Foundation.
Edsel has a son from his first marriage and two boys, 4 and 6, with his second wife, Anna, who is the Foundation’s President. She is from Florence.
According to its website, the Monuments Men and Women Foundation has found and returned more than 30 cultural objects and works of art since its inception. The Foundation’s toll-free tipster hotline 1-866-WWII-ART provides an easy way for those in possession of or knowledge of missing objects to obtain important information. Callers can remain anonymous and the foundation will help return the item.
The foundation has five employees.
“We’ve done wonders with a very, very, very small workforce and I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished over the years. We could do a lot more to help a lot more people, but it’s just very, very difficult to get any money. My wife and I put our life savings into maintaining the foundation. My time is 100 percent volunteer. I am not asking for any compensation. I never. From time to time, a few people have come forward to give gifts, but that’s really the biggest challenge we face. We have an easier time finding and returning stolen items than raising money for them,” Edsel said.
He was pleased that the Army reconstituted a Monuments Men and Women Force. Edsel said it is very important now that they are being attacked in Ukraine and other conflict zones.
“It’s a problem that will never go away unless we figure out how to end the war, and I don’t see that happening,” Edsel said.