Unlike the ridiculous antics of Indiana Jones, the latest Hollywood foray into the cultural property arena has some genuine merit even if it is still, after all, entertainment. The Monuments Men is a belated tribute to genuine preservationists who were tremendously successful and are certainly deserving of this day in the Sun. Sadly, it will enbolden a rash of modern day nationalist thieves eager to "steal" the past by clamoring for strict controls and "stewardship" over everything older than their shoe laces—all in the name of "saving" the past. What was conceived in 1970 through a laudable concern over genuine cultural monuments has devolved in recent years into a fanaticism over trivia and a lust for power.
Since the setting of this movie is WWII, it might be worth remembering that not everything treated as "Cultural Property" by UNESCO and nationalist bureaucracies was looted art. Many of the objects of war now touted as "precious" in the eyes of cultural property nationalists were intentionally scrapped by the authorities who controlled them 70 or more years ago. An unfathomable tonnage of aircraft, vehicles, weapons, documents, and all that multiple armies needed to subsist, was destroyed or abandoned at the end of every war in modern times. Much of it still lies where it was buried or pushed into the sea. Yet, many of these very objects today risk being made untouchable to the general population through administrative regulations or even criminal statutes. Nevermind that they were originally bought and paid for by John Q. Public.
Each year, the list of verboten objects grows—extending even to utilitarian objects like coins. This sequestering of cultural property, which includes virtually everything ever made by mankind, is promoted by self-appointed stewards as a necessary action to preserve the past. In some theaters, that act may gain applause but it is really a modern day parallel to the very concern that gave birth to the Monuments Men of WWII. Absolute control leads to absolute tyranny. It did then and it does now. Anyone who would liken today's cultural property power grab to the heroic actions portrayed in The Monuments Men might do well to remember the election debates of 1988. Vice-Presidential candidate Dan Quayle had compared his prior experience to that of John F. Kennedy. In a rare moment of absolute clarity, his opponent Lloyd Bentsen responded "Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy".