Ingenious: The Monuments Man

During World War II, UI professor Edwin C. Rae (inset) served as chief of the U.S. Army’s Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, Restitution Branch. (Images courtesy of UI Archives)
Professor Edwin C. Rae helped save and return priceless artwork stolen by the Nazis

Fighting Nazis and saving priceless treasures sounds like an adventure for Indiana Jones. But it was the real-life mission of an Illinois professor during the final years of World War II.

Edwin C. Rae, UI art historian, was one of the legendary “Monuments Men,” a group depicted in a 2014 movie written and directed by George Clooney.

In real life, the Monuments Men were a group of 345 men and wo-men whose job was to locate, save and return artwork that the Nazis had pilfered from conquered countries. Rae was chief of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, Restitution Branch, in Bavaria, Germany.

The Monuments Men continued their work in Europe until 1951, ultimately overseeing the return of 5 million cultural objects, according to the Monuments Men Foundation. 

Rae came to Illinois as a professor in 1939. His passion was medieval Irish art and architecture. But in 1942, he joined the Army, working his way up to captain and becoming a Monuments Man.

Rae’s widow, Dorothy, donated his papers to the UI Archives, which include photos of the retreival process, along with photos of recovered artwork.

Rae organized the first exhibition of German art in Germany after WWII, which included masterpieces from the Renaissance. He left the military and returned to Illinois, where he became chairman of the Dept. of Art History in 1954. He passed away in Urbana in 2002.

Looking back, Rae’s son, Thomas, once told the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette that his dad was “quiet and hardly ever swore. But he was driven like a force of nature.”

Sources: The Bavarian, March 14, 1946; the Monuments Men Foundation; the News-Gazette, Feb. 16, 2014; and the UI Archives.