As all of you probably know, the topic of art crime is very important to me. Art matters to me, so people who threaten it bother me deeply. Thus far, I’ve written about forgery, the theft and repatriation of art during World War Two, the work of The Monuments Men, and destruction of cultural heritage currently taking place in the Middle East. However, I have not yet written about an extremely courageous woman who was instrumental in tracking and restoring thousands of works stolen by the Nazis from France during World War Two. Her impact on western cultural heritage was immense, so I think it’s about time she gets some space on this blog.
Rose Valland (1898-1980) was one of the war’s unlikeliest of heroes. A country-born French woman who studied art and art history at several prestigious institutions including the Sorbonne, Valland was a volunteer curator at the Louvre when Paris was invaded in 1939 (Edsel 194). Prompted by Jacques Jaujard, the director of the French National Museums and a Resistance operative, Valland went back to work at the Musee du Jeu de Paume, a small Louvre outpost that had been commandeered by the Nazis to store and sort their plundered art collections, shortly after the occupation began. According to scholar Lynn Nicholas, a minimum of 22,000 items taken from French collections were stored at the Jeu de Paume and then shipped to Germany, usually by train, between 1941 and 1944 (Nicholas, Rape of Europa, 135). While ostensibly at the Jeu de Paume to take care of the building as an administrator, Valland was actually spying on the Nazis and reporting back to Jaujard. She didn’t simply observe activities, she carefully tracked the stolen art that passed through the museum – identifying what it was, from whom it had been stolen, and where it had been sent. She even went so far as to steal records and photographs to copy for the Resistance. Although she began receiving pay for her work in 1941 (Monuments Men website), the immense personal risks she took during the war are all that much more impressive when you consider that she agreed to them as an unpaid volunteer.
Though not the kind of glamorous spying seen in James Bond movies, Valland’s work was extremely dangerous; she defied the Nazis under their noses for four entire years. No matter what precise brand of savvy she used to get away with her deception, she was clearly quite good at it. Not only did she survive the war and avoid detection, she acquired valuable information that undoubtedly saved scores of paintings and sculptures. Much has been made of her unassuming appearance, which probably helped her fly under the radar a great deal. Jaujard described her as “imminently forgettable”, and Monuments Man James Rorimer called her “matronly” (Edsel 160). Photographs of Valland back up these descriptions. Despite being good at flying under the radar, Valland was kicked out of the museum on four separate occasions; it is a bit of a mystery how she managed to be taken back so many times without arousing suspicion (Nicholas Rape of Europa 135).
Valland wasn’t able to actually do anything to prevent works of art from being stolen or moved; even Jaujard and the Resistance were rarely able to accomplish that. What her spying did allow her to do was tell Monuments Men and future Metropolitan Museum of Art director James Rorimer (1905-1966) exactly where to find the stolen works after the end of the war. Many were in remote hiding places, such as the famous Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a monastery, and several Austrian salt mines. She also provided information about a train full of works that the Nazis were attempting to secret out of the country in 1944; Jaujard and the Resistance were able to delay the train until in could be taken by Allied forces, although some of its contents had been pillaged in the interim (Edsel 181-183). This event is the basis for the 1964 film The Train.
Considering the Nazis’ scorched-earth behavior near the end of the war, including the infamous “Nero Decree”, Valland probably saved many priceless works from total destruction. After the end of the war, Valland became a Captain in the French Army, received numerous honors including the French Legion of Honor and the American Medal of Freedom, and eventually attained the position of bona fide curator in 1953 (Edsel 411-412). She dedicated the rest of her life to the repatriation of stolen art.
Valland has achieved a certain amount of notoriety in recent years. Interest in repatriation and the work of the Monuments Men has grown, starting with Lynn Nicholas’s 1994 book The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Most recently, Robert Edsel’s equally-successful 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History was made into a major movie (2012) directed by and starring George Clooney. Clooney’s movie was a fictional story inspired by real events rather than directly based on them, so Valland became a similar character named Claire Simone and played by Cate Blanchett. Being portrayed by Cate Blanchett can only ever help someone’s notoriety among a popular audience. I adore Cate Blanchett – you have to love the woman who played both Elizabeth I and Galadriel – but I would be just as interested in Rose Valland’s story even if she had never been in any movie at all.
- Edsel, Robert. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009.
- Nicholas, Lynn. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
- Nicholas, Lynn (interviewed by William R. Ferris). “On the Trail of Lost Art”. Humanities. Vol. 22, No. 3 (May/June 2001).
- “Rose Valland (1898-1980)”. Monuments Men Foundation website. Accessed April 26, 2015.
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