This summer Anne Olivier Bell turned 97. Her name may not mean much to readers, except for those who are familiar with the five volumes of Virginia Woolf's diary, which she edited meticulously, or those who attend the annual Charleston literary festival in Sussex, England, where she sits in the front row, making sotto voce comments on the quality of the talks.
Her work on the diaries took 25 years - transcribing, writing footnotes and fact checking in the London Library - and she was awarded honorary degrees by both the University of York, in north England, and the University of Sussex, on the country's south coast. But I most admire, and want to celebrate, the fact that she is the last surviving member of the so-called Monuments Men, who were responsible for the protection of historic buildings and for the return of the huge number of works of art that had been seized by the Nazis in the early stages of the second world war.
When we visit Europe's museums nowadays, I don't think many of us are aware of the devastation that was wrought on museums, galleries, churches, castles and private collections of art during the war. The Nazis moved through Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, France and Italy, commandeering works from their owners to enrich the private collections of art-loving military leaders such as Hermann Goering, and to form the collection of the great museum Adolf Hitler planned to establish in his birthplace of Linz.
Ceramicist and writer Edmund de Waal has described how his family's possessions were stripped from their palace in Vienna in 1938, but this was only the beginning of at least two years of systematic seizure of property or semi-compulsory purchase instigated by Hans Posse, Hitler's adviser in establishing his museum.
In Poland, the three great paintings from the Czartoryski collection were seized, including Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man, which has only recently been located in a bank vault; and da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine, so much admired in a recent exhibition of his work at London's National Gallery, which was taken from Krakow to Berlin by Kajetan Muhlmann, whom Goering had appointed as special commissioner for the protection of works of art in the occupied territories.
The Ghent Altarpiece (by the Van Eyck brothers) was removed in 1942 and stored in Altaussee in Austria. In France, between April 1941 and July 1944, 4,174 cases of works of art were shipped to Germany. It has been estimated that more than five million works of art were taken from their owners.
As it became clear that the US was likely to join the war, American art historians and museum directors established committees to lobby the government to ensure that works of art and historic buildings received as much protection as possible in the event of an invasion.
"Frick maps" were prepared, based on research in New York's Frick Art reference library, showing the location of the most important works of art, experts were consulted, and a handbook was prepared by George Stout, head of conservation at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University.
Thus was born the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments and War Areas, commonly called the Roberts Commission. This in turn led to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the allied armies - the Monuments Men, who accompanied troops into Sicily and up through Italy, trying to ensure the greatest works of art and buildings were protected from bombing and were, as far as possible, returned to their owners or the appropriate local authorities.
As the war drew to a close, and allied forces began to discover vast collections of works of art stored in castles, monasteries and salt mines across Germany, it became clear that attempting to return these treasures to their rightful owners was a task of unimaginable proportions. In November 1945, Anne Popham, as Anne Olivier Bell then was, was approached by "a foppish young man" at a party and asked if she would be interested in working for the Museums, Fine Arts and Archives branch of the Allies' control commission.
Bell recalls: "I was concerned about all the bombing and the destruction and the horror and the moving about of pictures and so forth. And I knew I had something of use and value to offer." She was given the civilian rank of major, serving under Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Webb, professor at Cambridge and an expert on English architect John Vanbrugh.
The daughter of A.E. Popham - the then recently appointed keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum, who had spent the war years cataloguing drawings from the Royal Collection - Bell was well qualified for the work. Educated at St Paul's School for Girls, west London, she had been one of the first students of central London's Courtauld Institute, where she attended lectures by Anthony Blunt and worked in its Conway Library. She was based at Bunde in the Westphalia region of Germany, and was responsible for co-ordinating the work of other officers in the British zone.
One evening Bell brought Franz Wolff-Metternich, the provincial curator of historic monuments for the Rhine and a professor at Bonn University, to dine at her officers' mess. He had been invited to discuss how best to return works of art to museums. Her fellow officers refused to eat with him. Bell recognised that the Germans were human when they did not.
The co-ordinating work may have been sometimes dull, but it was absolutely necessary. Bell plays down its significance, as did the other people involved. This may have reflected the low esteem in which the work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section was held by the military, who were wary of civilian involvement in the task of post-war reconstruction. But this should not lead us to underestimate its importance nearly 70 years later.
In recent years the US has begun to recognise the work of the Monuments Men. Texas-based writer and businessman Robert Edsel set up the Monuments Men Foundation in 2007, and arranged for Bell to be presented by the US ambassador in London with a citation signed by president Dwight Eisenhower's daughter and a copy of the flag flown over the US Capitol. In 2009 he wrote a book, The Monuments Men, about these unsung heroes, which has just been made into a film starring George Clooney as Stout and Cate Blanchett as Rose Valland, a member of the French resistance who tracked down thousands of stolen artworks.
Guardian News & Media
Charles Saumarez Smith is secretary and chief executive of central London's Royal Academy of Arts.