5 questions with New York Times Best-selling author Robert Edsel


Robert Edsel speaks about how cultural treasures were protected during WWII at BBC on Nov. 6.

New York Times best-selling author Robert Edsel never thought he’d write a book, let alone work with George Clooney on the featured film Monument’s Men. The Texas-native has simply followed his passion, which has taken him down very different paths. Today, the author has spoken at the Vatican and museums in Europe, to the most prominent museums and universities in the United States. FIU News sat down with Edsel before his lecture Nov. 6 at Biscayne Bay Campus to learn more about the modern day Renaissance man.

You’ve had three very different career paths – professional tennis player, oil and gas exploration and now New York Times best selling author. What inspired the move between these industries? 

Passion and curiosity. Tennis was my first love. I started doing that and had ambitions to be a professional player and realized at some point in time I could be good but I couldn’t be great. That was difficult to let go of because I’d never thought about doing anything else. I finished college – I was eager to get out. I didn’t have a good college experience and just wanted to go to work doing anything. The first job I was offered was working for a guy who was in the oil and gas business. I started from the ground up, learned as much as I could and started my own company. I had the best inspiration to start a company, which was fear of failure.

That was really a struggling enterprise for the first 15 out of 17 years. I was a little bit ahead, a little behind. Then new technologies that lead to horizontal drilling became prevalent in the area in which we were working. In fact, we really pioneered the use of that and it transformed what we were doing and the company grew tremendously; and then I thought, ‘you know, what defines my life is meaningfulness.’ I had a 2 year old son I wasn’t seeing, wasn’t spending time with him because I was so busy working, and I finally had a chance that I was a little bit ahead to sell the company. I had 100 employees and it took about a year for everybody to find work somewhere else, but nobody was unemployed. Then I moved to Europe, to Florence, and started studying art and architecture.

It lead inadvertently to asking this question, ‘if Europe was so beat up by the war, 65 million lives lost during this epic World War, how did all these works of art survive and who were the people who saved them?’ It’s an extraordinary moment in our history that all of our accumulated beautiful artistic and cultural treasures, the great literary works, musical manuscripts, the most important library’s, most famous paintings, tapestries, drawings, all of these things are at threat of being destroyed or stolen for a period of six years during the war. The elusiveness of it lured me in further and further and further. I mean, how hard could it be to find an answer to a question about World War II – it’s the most documented, photographed event in history. But it took quite a long time and led to this great role over the last now 17 years, since I asked the question.

Last year, FIU’s own Jewish Museum of Florida, displayed about 30 posters from the Dr. Hans Sachs collection, a German Jewish dentist who had amassed what some call the largest and most significant poster collection in the world. There was some controversy over the fact that the family was selling some of the works since no museum could take the some 4,000 posters the family got back. What’s your take on it? Should the art be in a museum for all to enjoy?

Our country is a country that has been established on the rights of private ownership, whether it’s a home, a car, or a work of art. If 70 years have passed, it doesn’t change someone’s right to have something back, if it was stolen from them. They have the same rights today that that would have had 70 years ago, which is to have it and choose to do with it what they want to.

Whoever buys this object or buys these posters, they’re not going to be buried with them. They may put them in their home, for a generation, but ultimately, most of these things that are really important, whether they have a high monetary value or a high cultural value, are going to find their way into public institutions sooner or later. And once they’re there, they’ll stay there. But a lot of times the buyer at the auction is either a collector that’s going to donate it to a different museum or a museum that ends up buying it. But if we think of this thing as a humanity standpoint. If it was something that was taken from your great grandfather that belonged to your grandfather that your father had that he intended for you to have for you to give to your kids, how would you feel if people came along and told you you shouldn’t go get that for your kids? You ought to leave it where it’s at. I think you’d be offended and most people would be too.

Edsel 1What museum, in the United States, do you think does the best job at addressing the subject of looted art?

The Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth is one that does exceptionally well. They’ve got very outstanding providence researchers there – they know their collection. In the process of doing all this work, [there was] a work of art  they had not been able to identify yet. A family made a claim on the work by Turner, one of the great British painters of the 18th century, that had been stolen from their family. The Kimball knew nothing about that. They checked into it. They determined it was a legitimate claim. They didn’t drag their feet. They didn’t take them to court. They took the painting off the wall and gave it back to the family. That family – because there were multiple family members – sold it to be able to divide the proceeds. The buyer at the auction was the Kimball. They paid over $5 million to buy this painting and hang it back in their museum.

At the Monuments Men Foundation, we spend a lot of time raising visibility about this, trying to make sure museums know their collection. If they’re not doing the basic work, or they plead poverty, then we make it visibility uncomfortable for them to do that because it’s not a socially responsible response.

Any museums in Miami that stick out to you?

Miami’s got some great, contemporary interests: less old masters, I mean the Norton Museum is certainly outstanding, not too far from Miami and the Ringling Museum, in Sarasota, which does have old masters and interesting collection that was acquired. Miami’s a big art scene in respect to much more contemporary artists and so many Latin American artists, Caribbean artists who are up and coming. Of course Art Basel takes place down here. Miami’s one of those go-to destinations if you’re interested in the arts.

What’s your advice to art history majors who have to constantly answer the question, “What are you going to do with that?”

Find the things that you’re passionate about and do that. Don’t get dissuaded from it. It’s difficult. Learn as much as you can about as many different things as you can. Try and learn something about other languages. Travel. For people who are interested in trying to take some art background and find a job, there’s a dramatic shortage of young providence experts. This is an area that if there were 200 students coming out of FIU that had expertise or some knowledge of providence stuff, they’d find jobs. Museums and private collectors need to know about what they have in their collection, in the U.S. and other places. Also if they’re interested in the law. The law about cultural property, not just Nazi era looted things, but the whole issue of cultural property, there’s gonna be a subject of debate and in some cases, litigation.  It’s really a field that’s unfolding – a growth area. This is an area where knowledge about art and art background is really, really important to be able to do this job.