The only woman who served with the real-life ‘Monuments Men’ has been revealed as a 97-year-old British great grandmother – who’s never heard of George Clooney.
Anne Oliver Bell is the last remaining British member of the elite squad who tracked down priceless artwork and artefacts plundered by the Nazis during the Second World War.
The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit used a network of around 350 historians and scholars to protect buildings and art from Hitler.
Their story has now been turned into a Hollywood film ‘Monuments Men’ starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray.
Anne was the only female officer among the so-called Monuments Men and is the last surviving member of the 60-strong British section.
Anne, of Lewes, Sussex, recently attended the film’s London premier where she met its star and director Clooney – and admitted she didn’t know who he was.
She said: “I told him I had never heard of him before and he said ‘ sometimes I don’t know who I am’. He was very nice and he gave a kiss to my carer. She was thrilled.”
Anne played a crucial part in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit, who were formed in 1943 and based in Westphalia, Germany.
She spent 15 months in Germany cataloguing artwork as the only female officer among the so-called Monuments Men.
The team were responsible for returning art to its rightful homes, after Hitler ordered his men to steal them for his planned Fuhrermuseum.
Anne was selected to join the unit after studying art at the Courtault Institute, and then working for the Ministry of Information.
Because she was fluent in German, she communicated with local museum directors, who had to prove they had no Nazi sympathies before they could resume their posts.
She said: ‘’“I was bored by my work in the Ministry of Information, concerned about all the bombing and destruction, and had something of value to offer, so I agreed to go.
“It was interesting but sometimes very worrying. Conditions were awful, the roads were appalling, telephone calls kept breaking up three-quarters of the way through.
“We didn’t have much power and they were always trying to commandeer castles.”
Anne’s work was honoured by the American government in 2007 but the British government has never acknowledged the MFAA’s achievements.
She lost her fiancé Graham Bell during the war and settled in Lewes with new husband Quentin Bell and the couple had three children.
After Germany, Bell worked in publishing and at the Arts Council, where she helped provide artists with canvas and paints.
During the film premier she also had a cheeky encounter with Bill Murray, who sat on her lap.
Anne, who has six grandchildren, said: “Leicester Square was fantastic, I had never seen it like that.
“The red carpet was all laid out, there were about a billion people screaming out and about a million photographers shouting ‘look this way’.
“One of the stars, in a show to the photographers, came and sat on my knee. He had a terrific bottom, very large and I had to push him off. I enjoyed the night immensely.”
Set during the final days of the war, George Clooney’s film focuses on the American officers’ raid on German salt mines, to save priceless looted artefacts from destruction.
The film also stars Cate Blanchett and Downtown star Hugh Bonneville.
Anne was the niece-in-law of Virginia Woolfe, and spent a quarter of a century editing five volumes of her diaries – for which she was awarded an MBE.