Monday 3 March 2014

A Rose Among Thorns

Rose Valland courtesy

At the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, the Nazis stamped the back of each piece of stolen artwork with a small black swastika.  Unbeknownst to them, however, art expert Rose Valland was cataloguing each masterpiece in her ledger.  Part of the French Resistance, Rose would keep one step ahead of the Nazis in an attempt to save Europe's art.

France's art was the most looted in Europe during the Second World War, with over 1/3 of its private collection falling into the hands of the Nazis.  Knowing that war was looming, French museum curators had arranged to evacuate some of its precious art.  By the late summer of 1939, the Louvre museum was shuttered and emptied of its Leonardo's and Mantegna's.  The famous Mona Lisa, for instance, had been evacuated on a stretcher via ambulance to the French countryside.

Mona Lisa courtesy

Given the limited time and resources the curators had, though, many of the "objects d'art" remained in Paris. With the City of Light occupied by the Germans, Nazis like Hermann Goering used the opportunity to get his chubby little hands on many a masterpiece.  Rose Valland was present at the Jeu de Paume each time Goering came to visit.  And each time she catalogued what he stole for his private collection.

As the war progressed, the Nazis removed many art treasures from the museum.  Unbeknownst to the Nazis, Rose Valland understood German.  As they planned the evacuation of the masterpieces, she noted the name of each piece and where it was headed.  On August 1, 1944, Rose warned the French Resistance about a train composed of five boxcars full of looted art that the Nazis were about to remove from the country, knowing that the Allies were coming.  The Resistance was able to prevent the train from leaving the station.

Aerial view of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany

Photo of Neuschwanstein given to James Rorimer by Rose Valland (note the fold in the centre) courtesy

It was also Rose that informed Monuments Man James Rorimer, former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the destination of many of the pieces -- Neuschwanstein.  What better place to hide the artwork stolen by a madman than in a castle constructed by a madman?  Neuschwanstein, built by King Ludwig, was a fairytale castle hidden away in the Bavarian Alps. The Monuments Men had to battle rugged terrain and severe weather as they ascended the Alps in the Winter of 1945.  With scarce personnel and limited resources, the men had to uncover, catalogue, pack and transport 21,000 items, a daunting task.

Soldiers evacuating looted art from Neuschwanstein Castle

Evacuation of looted art at Neuschwanstein courtesy

Rose Valland lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity, passing away in 1980.  But the Monuments Men would never forget the role she played in the biggest treasure hunt in history.

James Rorimer supervises the evacuation of looted art from Neuschwanstein courtesy

For more information:

1.  Read Rose Valland:  Resistance at the Museum, Corinne Bouchoux.
2.  Visit the Smithsonian Exhibit in Washington DC in person "Monuments Men:  On the Frontline to Save Europe's Art, 1942-1946" (Feb. 7-Apr. 20, 2014) or at

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