Scene: Clooney, Goodman at ’Monuments Men’ Premiere

Stars of "The Monuments Men," George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, at the world premiere last night. Source: Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. via Bloomberg

One of the themes of the film “The Monuments Men,” a Columbia Pictures and Fox 2000 Pictures production, is whether saving a work of art is worth a soldier’s life. This plays out as a team of art professionals goes into Europe in the last months of World War II to locate masses of art looted under Hitler’s orders.

On the red carpet last night for the film’s world premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York, George Clooney, the film’s director, co-writer and star, clarified his own position.

“I don’t believe in the idea that anyone would die for a piece of art,” said Clooney, who plays the leader of the mission. “If you had the statue of David in your house and there’s a fire, and it was risking certain death, you save your family, you save your dog.”

Clooney was certainly not making light of the lives lost of The Monuments Men, whose true story is told in the book of the same name by Robert Edsel.

“The truth is that’s not what it’s really about,” Clooney said. “What it is about is that Hitler was trying to make it that these people never existed. He wanted to not just kill them all, not just conquer their land but he wanted to take their culture away. And that is worth dying for. And that’s the difference between dying for a piece of art and dying for culture.”

‘Terrible Painting’

Clooney’s own art collection contains “no great pieces of art, just things that I buy,” he said. “I finally got some guy to come over, like an interior decorator, to fix up my house, and he started yanking out all the things that were on my walls. He said, ‘That’s a terrible painting.’ But I got that painting the first time I went to Paris. He said, ‘Yeah but it’s not a great painting.’ And I said, ‘Yeah but it’s important to me, I like the painting.’”

The high-flying world of the art market did have a presence last night, with Gagosian Gallery a sponsor, and guests including artist Jeff Koons and collectors Henry Kravis, co-chairman of KKR & Co., Steve Schwarzman, chairman of Blackstone Group LP, and Glenn Fuhrman, co-managing partner of MSD Capital LP.

Hours before the event, Christie’s International sold $289 million of Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist art, the highest tally ever for a London auction. A Cubist still life by Juan Gris went for $56.8 million. In November, a Francis Bacon triptych sold for $142 million.

“They must really like the painting,” quipped John Goodman, a star in the film.

Favorite Painting

“I wish they’d spend a little less money on art and a little bit more money perhaps working with the Monuments Men Foundation to honor these men and women, because without them, a lot of this work wouldn’t be up there,” said Edsel, who created and runs the foundation. How much money? “A $20 million endowment.”

Hugh Bonneville, whose character’s crowning moment is finding Michelangelo’s 1504 sculpture “Madonna and Child” as yet undisturbed in a church in Bruges, Belgium, said his most valued work of art is headed for his bedroom wall.

“A local artist did a wonderful picture of my wife, and if someone wants to offer me $140 million for it, they’re not having it,” Bonneville said. What is she wearing? “Not very much.” Sounds like a good plot line for “Downton Abbey,” the show on which Bonneville plays Lord Grantham.

The film opens in U.S. theaters on Friday.

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