By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - Former tennis pro turned Texas oilman Robert Edsel took a risk when he walked away from a lucrative business to launch the third act of his life as a detective specializing in art plundered by Nazi Germany.
Now, with a best-selling novel and after rubbing shoulders with Hollywood headliners such as George Clooney, the gamble seems to have paid off.
Edsel is the man behind "The Monuments Men," whose book about the allied forces team tasked with returning looted art to rightful owners after World War Two has been given the full Hollywood treatment.
Clooney assembled a top-shelf cast to play art experts and took on directing the film version, which opens nationwide on Friday.
"There is really nothing like a Hollywood film to raise awareness about the important work that has been done and still needs doing," he said.
Edsel, 57, acknowledges that some liberties were taken to compress his book into a two-hour movie, but that doesn't bother him.
"The overarching principles of their achievement and heroism are well represented," he told Reuters.
As the spotlight is trained on the search for millions of artifacts stolen by the Nazis, it also brings attention to Edsel's Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation, where efforts to return the stolen artwork continue nearly 70 years later.
In a related matter, U.S. officials on Thursday returned tens of thousands of Polish art objects looted by the Nazis and missing for 75 years.
A BRIDGE IN ITALY
Edsel said his obsession with art history began in 1996 on the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, surrounded by the historic art and architecture when he asked himself how did those works endure through the centuries.
Seventeen years later, Edsel has spent a large chunk of his personal wealth searching for missing treasures as well as promoting the contributions of the members of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program - the Monuments Men.
Edsel, born in the Chicago area, grew up Dallas and trained to become a professional tennis player. He later put down his racket and entered the oil industry.
When he turned 24, Edsel founded his own oil and gas company called Gemini Exploration, which used the technology of horizontal drilling to extract underground oil and gas. He sold that off and kicked back for a bit with the cash.
With newfound time, Edsel and his young family moved to Europe, where he studied art and architecture.
As he read and researched, he discovered Lynn Nicholas' 1994 book, "The Rape of Europa," about Nazi looting and theft. He flew to Washington, D.C., knocked on her door and convinced her to allow him to co-produce a documentary film.
Released in 2006, it received critical acclaim, including two Emmy nominations.
Three years later, he published "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History."
In 2007, he founded the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a non-profit organization in a warehouse district in Dallas. That year, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush for his work.
"He has been relentless and passionate in uncovering this unique story - both as historian and as founder of a foundation that continues the work of locating works of art stolen by the Nazis or removed by others during the chaos of war," said Gordon "Nick" Mueller, president and chief executive officer of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which will open a permanent exhibit on the Monuments Men in 2016.
Edsel measures success with each stolen artwork he can return to Nazi victims or their descendants, most of whom are Jews. Through painstaking searches of old photos and documents, he has been able to identify and initiate the return of stolen artworks hanging in museums all over the world.
But the hardest to track down are the "souvenirs" picked up by American GIs, soldiers from other countries or displaced people searching through the rubble.
"Many of these items ended up in attics, safety deposit boxes and storage units," Edsel said.
"We're trying to finish the job the Monuments Men started but we need people with information to help us," Edsel said.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Shumaker)