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What he discovered was worthy of "you can't make this stuff up" status. To wit: one of the officers' luckiest breaks came when Captain Robert Posey, who taught soldiers based in Germany about the historic significance of the buildings they were stationed in, had a toothache. The local dentist turned out to have a son-in-law who had served with the Nazis in Paris when they began to fill eastbound trains with priceless art. The son-in-law kept a list of the loot and knew where it had been sent. It was that toothache, which is given its due in the movie, that eventually led the Monuments Men to Hitler's personal stash of the finest plunder the continent had to offer.
The restitution work that they began is still ongoing. Just months ago, the discovery of another trove of Nazi-looted art made news. Edsel estimates that hundreds of thousands of such works of art have yet to be found and returned to their owners. He hopes that the high-profile publicity that is The Monuments Men will prompt those with information about art of dubious provenance to come forward--his foundation even has a toll-free tip line, 866-WWII-ART--and the rest of the world to pay attention.
"These are the lessons of history that we ignore at our own peril," says Edsel. "All the stuff that survived today, it didn't survive by accident."
To Protect and Preserve
Even as the story of The Monuments Men gets its time in the spotlight, there's evidence that some lessons have been learned. While headlines have been filled with legal battles over art looted by Nazis, the U.S. military has focused anew on protecting culture.
Take, for example, the work of Matthew Bogdanos, the classics-trained New York City assistant district attorney and Marine Reserve colonel who in 2003 led a team to retrieve items stolen from the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad. (Bogdanos described his quest in the book Thieves of Baghdad.) Like the Monuments Men, he was driven to recover the markers of a civilization threatened by conflict. He asked his supervisor for permission to go after the missing artifacts, estimating that he could do it in three to five days--which was about 10 years ago. Now back in New York, he's still on the trail of some missing items. ("Oops," he tells TIME.)
Meanwhile, the Combatant Command Cultural Heritage Action Group (CCHAG), first funded in 2006, has developed products like decks of playing cards for troops that convey information about cultural sites in combat zones.
"Though we haven't recently had a huge formal initiative like the World War II Monuments and Fine Arts officers," says Laurie Rush, a military archaeologist who helped found CCHAG, "we have had extraordinary soldiers who had the right background--art historians or preservation professionals--who also saved cultural property."