Synopsis:During World War II by 1943, the Allies are making good progress driving back the Axis powers such as in Italy. However, Frank Stokes persuades the US President that victory will have little meaning if the art treasures of Western civilization are lost in the fighting, either as collateral damage in combat or looted. To minimize that threat, Stokes is directed to assemble an Army unit nicknamed the "Monuments Men" comprising seven museum directors, curators, and art historians to both guide Allied units and search for stolen art to return it to the rightful owners.
In occupied Paris, France, Claire Simone, a curator, is forced to allow Nazi officers like Viktor Stahl oversee the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler's proposed Führermuseum in Linz, or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering. While she is nearly arrested for helping her Maquis brother unsuccessfully recapture such items, all seems lost when she discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery's contents to Germany as the Allies approach Paris.
As for Stokes' unit, they find their work is frustrated by their own side's combat units who refuse to restrict their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture, while James Granger finds that Simone will not cooperate with those whom she suspects are art looters themselves. However, when Granger shows her the Nero Decree to destroy all German possessions if Hitler dies or Germany falls, she eventually provides a comprehensive ledger that provides valuable information to identify stolen art.
The unit splits up for various objectives with varying degrees of success. Donald Jeffries of the British Army attempts to arrange the safety of a French church with valuable artwork and is killed attempting to prevent the Nazi Colonel Wegner from stealing a Madonna and Child bust. Richard Campbell and Preston Savitz attempt to track down a stolen Belgium panel set of religious artwork, and in doing so, find and arrest Viktor Stahl, hiding as a farmer, when they identify the paintings in his house as originals stolen from the Rothschild Collection. Walter Garfield and Jean Claude Clermont are caught in a crossfire of a battle and Clermont is mortally wounded.
Even as the Men learn that the artwork is being stored in various mines and castles, they also learn that they must now compete against the Soviet Union who have units of their own seizing artwork as war reparations. Meanwhile, Colonel Wegner is systematically removing and destroying whole art collections as per orders. Eventually, the Men have some success as they discover at least one mine with not only over 16,000 art pieces as well as grotesque caches as such as barrels of gold teeth from victims of the death camps. In addition, they also discover gold assets of the Nazi German national treasury, whose capture effectively bankrupts the regime.
Finally, they find a German mine that seems destroyed and is in what will be part of the Soviet occupation zone. However, the Men discover that only the entrances were damaged by the locals in order to fool the Nazis and they manage to gain entry even as their fellows delay the oncoming Soviets. As a result, the Men evacuate as much artwork as possible, including the bust Jefferies died defending, before the Soviets arrive.
In the end, Stokes reports to President Truman that they have recovered vast quantities of artwork and various other culturally significant items. As he requests to stay in Europe to oversee further searching and restoration, Truman asks if his efforts were worth it. Stokes firmly replies it was, and the scene shifts decades later where Stokes takes his grandson to see the Madonna bust, amid large crowds of youth appreciating the pieces of humanity's creativity that his men sacrificed so much to preserve in war.