An investigative series produced by Saloon Media and BriteSpark Films aims to take viewers on a global search for valuable objects and artwork stolen during the Second World War.
Hunting Nazi Treasure, which premieres tonight (Oct. 24) on History Canada, chronicles the systematic looting by Nazis. It aims to provide insights into the motivations of top Nazi leaders, exploring how artwork and cultural artifacts become targets during times of war.
Led by Robert Edsel, founder and chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art and author of The Monuments Men, the team includes investigative journalist Conor Woodman, Second World War historian James Holland and top experts on the Nazi era. The series takes the team across 14 countries, searching for items hidden in caves, castles, museums, and under water while gaining access to Nazi archives and declassified intelligence reports.
“I have studied the Second World War for over two decades, but nothing prepared me for this series,” says Saloon Media’s producer Steve Gamester. “When you follow money and treasure, it leads to unexpected and fascinating insights into how the Nazi state worked.”
Hunting Nazi Treasure is produced by Saloon Media and BriteSpark Films (UK) in association with Corus Entertainment’s History Canada and More4 (Channel 4). It is distributed by TCB Media Rights.
It premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History Canada.
Realscreen chatted with Steve Gamester about the series.
Can you provide a brief synopsis of the project?
Hunting Nazi Treasure is about the greatest theft in history and the biggest treasure hunt the world has ever seen. Before and during the Second World War, the Nazis systematically looted occupied Europe and North Africa. They stole millions of works of art and cultural treasures and hundreds of tons of gold worth billions of dollars today. Much of the loot remains missing including works of art by Rembrandt, Raphael and Van Gogh. Now, a team of investigators is digging up clues, tracking down witnesses, and visiting Nazi hideouts to find out where missing treasure might be today.
What was the genesis for the series?
In the summer of 2015, I saw a story about a group of treasure hunters who claimed they had discovered a train full of Nazi gold hidden in a cave in Southern Poland. As it turned out, they didn’t find a train, and that story never really went anywhere (we don’t cover it in our series), but I remember being amazed there were people out there still looking for Nazi loot and impressed by the worldwide coverage. We dug into it and discovered this was an amazingly rich story: not only were there weekend treasure hunters all over Europe looking for Nazi loot, but also individuals, families, high powered lawyers, foundations and others trying to track down really valuable and important works of art. The idea was to create a series that explored the full spectrum of this treasure hunt that is in its eighth decade and still going strong.
Why do you think there is an appetite for this series?
For one, the scale of the theft was just so enormous. There are at least 100,000 works of art and billions worth of gold still missing… so there are many more stories to be told. Second, I think we’ve tapped into an under-explored narrative from the Second World War. This is not about the same old battles and generals. In our series we treat the Nazis like a criminal mafia… a gang of thieves. We follow the stolen money and loot that helped fuel the Nazi state and along the way reveal much that is new and interesting about the motivations and actions of top Nazis. Third, the incredible locations and active investigative approach lends itself to a type of epic storytelling that is evergreen. In the first season we filmed in 13 countries on four continents, everywhere from the deserts of Tunisia, to the crystal clear waters off Corsica to the snowy streets of St. Petersburg to far away Santiago, Chile. So it’s a big adventure that is always revealing big new places and discoveries to the audience.
What did you learn from a production perspective during this project?
I learned that art can be used to tell epic and popular stories on television. I was always afraid to put a painting on screen… afraid it would be too static, old school and never appeal to a wide audience. But there’s a reason people line up for hours to see the great works of art at the Louvre or the Met or wherever. These artworks are not only beautiful, but they hold a lot of mystery and emotion… they provide access points to some of the most incredible stories and characters in history.
What’s your favorite moment?
When we picture-locked the final episode. No really, my favorite moment in the series is when presenter and historian James Holland meets with Niklas Frank, the son of Hans Frank who was the Nazi ruler of occupied Poland. Niklas has spent his life coming to grips with the crimes of his father, who spent the war living at Wawel Castle, the home of the kings of Poland, surrounded by treasure stolen from the Polish people and European Jews. Meanwhile, outside the castle walls millions of Poles and Jews were being murdered. There is this incredible scene of Niklas walking through Wawel Castle with James… and they arrive at the painting Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo Da Vinci. Frank stole it during the war, but it was recovered. Some consider it a finer work than the Mona Lisa and James remarks that it’s the most beautiful artwork he’s ever seen. But Niklas hates it and you can see the pain in his eyes. It reminds him of the crimes of his father. It’s one of those moments where you can feel the weight of history. This single painting, stolen by the Nazis, is a window into the power of art, the drama of human relationships and the legacy of war that killed tens of millions and re-shaped our world.