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WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) -- It was perhaps the biggest art heist in history: The Nazis stole millions of works, including masterpieces by Vermeer, da Vinci, and Michelangelo.

In "Monuments Men" which is opening Friday, George Clooney tells the heroic stories of the Americans sent in to a war to recover the art.

And you can go behind the scenes of that adventure at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Amidst the seemingly endless death of World War II, a small group of men and women set out to save 1,000 years of Western heritage. Hitler had ordered his men to destroy all the pilfered artwork if Germany fell or he was killed.

"Monuments Men" opens Friday and so too does an exhibit of some of the real photos and documents of the time at the Smithsonian's Reynolds Center in the Penn Quarter.

The monuments men saved the Bruge Madonna, the only work by Michelangelo to leave Italy in his lifetime. "This was stolen out of a church wrapped up between mattresses," Archives director Kate Haw said, pointing to a photo of the priceless statue.

They rescued the Jan Van Eyck altarpiece the Nazi's stole from a cathedral in Ghent.

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The Monuments Men exhibit gives you a sense of the scale of the Nazi's heist. There is an inventory of hundreds and hundreds of artworks taken for just one man, Hitler's number two, Herman Goering. And they have the photographs handed over by a French infiltrator and art historian that led the team to Bavarian castle where the Nazis had stashed hundreds of treasures.

"This is an essential element of the culture of Europe, of the history of Europe. It would have been lost if these men hadn't done their work," says Haw.

But it is a lesson that seemingly has to be learned over and over again. Remember all the criticism the US faced when American troops failed to intervene as looters rampaged through the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq?

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