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Honoring the Monuments Men: Gold Medal at Kimbell Art Museum

Austria: 1945. Nazi War Loot in Altaussee. US army with looted art treasure in Austrian Salt mine.
Austria: 1945. Nazi War Loot in Altaussee. US army with looted art treasure in Austrian Salt mine. ©Topham / The Image Works

In a poignant Veterans Day moment for Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, the Congressional Gold Medal she championed honoring World War II art rescuers is now on display in Fort Worth.

The prestigious medal, the nation’s highest civilian award bestowed by Congress, is on exhibit from today until Nov. 15 at the Kimbell Art Museum. Entrance is free.

It was at a dinner at the Kimbell in 2006 that Granger first learned of the 350 member multinational military force of curators, historians, and architects known as the Monuments Men who saved and protected art and cultural treasures from the Nazis.

This special military unit was tasked with helping to locate works of art confiscated by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners.

Rep. Kay Granger

“That the first public appearance of the Congressional Gold Medal will occur at the Kimbell is appropriate because had Kay Fortson not introduced me to Congresswoman Kay Granger, the medal might well never have come into existence,” said Robert Edsel, the author of three books on the Monuments Men, who told Granger about the history of the art rescuers. Edsel and Granger came full circle Tuesday evening and spoke at a reception at the Kimbell at the opening of the exhibit. Kay Fortson, president of the Board of Directors of the Kimbell Art Foundation, also attended.

When Granger learned of Edsel’s research, she set out to recognize the all-but-forgotten Monuments Men, an effort that got a boost when actor George Clooney was one of the producers who made and starred in the 2014 movie “Monuments Men” based on Edsel’s book of the same name. The movie brought attention to the history of the art rescuers and the more than 5 million pieces of art and artifacts they saved.

"The important legacy of the Monuments Men is reflected on the walls of the great museums around the world," said Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. "We owe them a great debt, and I congratulate them on this esteemed honor.”

The museum is displaying the medal alongside a piece from its own collection that was rescued by the Monuments Men: a bust of Isabella d’Este, 1474–1539, attributed to sculptor Gian Cristoforo Romano. Edsel found a picture of the bust as it was being retrieved from the Altaussee Salt Mine in Austria, a site that was one of many used by the Nazis for storage because of the stable temperature and lack of humidity.

Congress approved the medal last year and it was presented to a few of the surviving Monuments Men Oct. 22 at a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall presided by then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio in his last medal event before retiring. There are six surviving Monuments Men. The gold medal will be kept by the Smithsonian Institution.

Edsel, who lives in Dallas, said he feels very connected to the Kimbell. “For someone who once lived in Florence, Italy, the Kimbell has become my home away from home museum,” he told McClatchy. “On an even more personal level, I became engaged to my wife, a Florentine by birth, at the Kimbell, sitting in front of works of art created by her fellow Florentines: Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, and Donatello.”

Edsel and Anna Bottinelli were married in April.

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