The book ‘Monuments Men’ allows the public to discover the achievements of the art experts who rescued masterpieces from Nazis. Yet the story of one of the central characters in this adventure remains uncelebrated. One heroine gathered the information allowing the Monuments Men to know what to look for, and where to find it. This is the story of a Resistance fighter and Monument Woman called Rose Valland.
Rose Valland, Unpaid Assistant Curator
Who could have imagined that a girl born in a small provincial town would one day become curator? Young Rose first went on to study to become a primary school teacher. She studied for many years, including at the Fine Arts school and the Louvre School. Highly qualified, she took an unpaid job at the Jeu de Paume museum in 1932, and became assistant curator in 1936.
Her work was to help organize modern art exhibitions. The kind one frustrated artist hated, who denounced modern art on his way to getting elected Chancellor of Germany. Hitler used art as a political tool, organizing ‘German’ art exhibitions in a bid to prove Aryan superiority. And ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibitions to accuse Jews and Bolsheviks of being degenerates. Two years later, Jacques Jaujard, director of the Louvre, evacuated it to save its masterpieces from Nazi greed.
Then one day, the Germans arrived in Paris. Valland’s beloved museum became “a strange world where works of art arrived with the sound of jackboots.” The Nazis forbade any French official to remain and witness a highly secret operation. But this unremarkable, unassuming woman assistant curator was allowed to stay.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Jaujard ordered her to use her position to report on anything she saw. Aged 42, she still was an unpaid volunteer. Others might have fled, or done nothing. But Rose Valland, whose strong determination had already brought her there, chose to “save some of the beauty of the world.”
Rose Valland Spied In Front Of Reichsmarschall Göring And Nazi Officials
Soon after the conquest Hitler visited Paris in a hurry, for barely two hours. The resentful artist dreamed of building his own museum, the Führermuseum. He designed plans for the museum himself. And to fill it with masterpieces, he chose the easy way, taking from others, and particularly Jews. For a failed artist’s delusions, artworks he admired were looted, resulting in the largest art theft in history. However, whatever he despised would be eradicated.
The Reich’s second in command, Göring, also was a rapacious art collector. Nazi looting was done with a pretense of legality. French people would first be deprived of their nationality and rights. Relegated to being Jews, their art collections were then considered ‘abandoned.’
Their prestigious art collections would then be ‘protected’ in Hitler’s museum and Göring’s castle. The Jeu de Paume was used to store the stolen artworks before being sent to Germany. It also became Göring’s private art gallery.
Recording The Largest Art Heist In History
One person was in a position to record what was stolen, to whom it belonged, and where it would be sent. Rose Valland spoke German, something the Nazis did not know. For four years, every day, she had to avoid any slip up to convince them that she understood them. Write detailed reports, and regularly bring them to Jaujard, without ever being caught.
She also had to hide her contempt at seeing Göring play the art connoisseur, thinking he was a Renaissance man. Cigar and champagne in hand, the Reichsmarschall had thousands of masterpieces to choose from, and the luxury to not have to pay for them.
To Valland’s eyes, Göring “combined sumptuosity with avarice”. Arriving in a private train, he “enjoyed picturing himself dragging behind victory trophies.”
Suspected, Interrogated, And Repeatedly Fired, Each Time Rose Valland Returned To The Jeu de Paume
Rose Valland was assigned to a small office in charge of the phone, which was ideal to listen in on conversations. She could decipher the carbon duplicates and print copies of the photos they took, gather information from small talk and office gossip, and even dare to write on a notebook in plain view.
These were the men Rose Valland mingled with and spied on. Reichsmarschall Göring, who came over twenty times to pick and chose art for Hitler and himself. Reich Minister Rosenberg, antisemite ideologue, in charge of the ERR (Rosenberg Special Task Force), the organisation specifically tasked to plunder artworks. Valland probably was the only operative of the war to have spied on Nazi officials so close, for so long.
What did she feel? “In this disturbing chaos the beauty of the ‘safeguarded’ masterpieces’ beauty was nevertheless revealed. I belonged to them, like a hostage.” As the Allies were getting close, suspicions increased. When things were missing, she was accused of theft.
Four times she was sacked, four times she returned. Every day, she had to muster the courage to face a “constantly renewed anxiety.” She even was accused of sabotage and signaling to the enemy. For that she was interrogated by the Feldpolizei, equivalent to the Gestapo.
Rose Valland Was Threatened And Her Execution Was Planned
Valland thought she could always play the art lover to explain why she was looking around. Needless to say, if at anytime during those four years it was realized she spoke German, or copied their papers and wrote reports, torture and death were certain.
The most dangerous moment was when she was caught in the act, copying information by Göring’s art dealer, and SS-Hauptsturmführer. He reminded her of the serious risks involved in revealing secrets. She wrote “he looked at me straight in the eye and told me I could be shot. I calmly replied that no one here is stupid enough to ignore the risk”.
After the war she learned that she indeed was considered a dangerous witness. And that it was planned to deport her to Germany and execute her.
Rose Valland Witnessed The Destruction of Paintings By Nazis
Not long after they took power, the Nazis burnt books and ‘degenerate art’ paintings. Plunder was for art worthy of the Fuhrer’s museum or Göring’s castle. Modern artworks would only be kept if they could be sold or exchanged for classical works. But anything that was ‘degenerate’, valuable only to ‘subhumans’ had to be destroyed. Something the Nazis did extensively to museums, libraries and places of worship in Poland and Russia.
In Paris, the Nazis had requisitioned three rooms of the Louvre to store looted artworks. Valland later recalled “I saw paintings that were thrown in the Louvre like in a garbage dump”. One day a selection of portraits depicting Jewish people was made. Paintings who had, to the ERR, no financial value. They lacerated faces with knives. In Valland’s words, they “slaughtered paintings.”
The shredded canvases were then brought outside the Jeu de Paume. A jumbled heap of faces and colour was assembled by adding ‘degenerate’ artworks to the pile. Paintings by Miró, Klee, Picasso and many others. Five to six hundred paintings were set on fire. Valland described “a pyramid where frames crackled in the flames. One could see faces glaring and then disappearing in the fire.”
The Nazis Stole Everything Belonging To Jews
It wasn’t only prestigious Jewish art collections Nazis were after, but really anything Jewish families possessed. The Nazis decided “the seizure of all furniture of Jews who have fled or those who are about to flee, in Paris as throughout the occupied Western territories.”
The operation was called Möbel-Aktion (operation furniture). The plan was to help Germany’s administration and civilians who had lost their belongings to Allied bombings. As a result 38,000 Parisian apartments were emptied of their household furnishings. Everything was taken, kitchen equipment, chairs and tables, mattresses, bedsheets, curtains, personal papers and toys.
To sort and prepare the stolen goods, three labor camps were created in Paris. Jewish prisoners were made to organize items by category. Then clean the sheets, repair the furniture, wrap the goods while sometimes recognizing their own property. One of Möbel-Aktion’s lists noted “5 ladies nightgowns, 2 children’s coats, 1 platter, 2 liqueur glasses, 1 man’s coat.”
Rose Valland Witnessed Nazi Looting
So much furniture was stolen that it took 674 trains to transport it to Germany. In total, nearly 70,000 Jewish family homes were emptied. A German report stated “it is amazing, given that these crates often seem to be full only of worthless old junk, to see how objects and effects of all sorts, after being cleaned, can be put to good use”. Another report complained that precious resources were wasted to transport “useless and worthless bric-a-brac.”
Yet, even worthless, the junk in question wasn’t only the most valuable items modest families possessed. It was their family mementos. The curtains would not offer a new morning to children, nor the plates a warm family meal. Violins would never again play the soundtrack of childhood, lost along the memories of those who disappeared.
Part of Möbel-Aktion’s loot made it to the Jeu de Paume, and Valland called those items “humble possessions whose only value is in human tenderness.”
Last Train To Germany
August 1944, the last train was being prepared. Masterpieces from the Jeu de Paume filled five carloads. Another 47 carloads still had to be loaded with “worthless old junk” taken from Parisian apartments for the train to leave. Efficient barbarity applied to people, their memories, and to artworks.
It was absolutely essential that the train never leave Paris, to avoid getting bombed. Valland informed Jaujard, who in turn asked railway workers to delay the train as much as possible. Between the time it took to load cheap furniture and the intentional sabotage, the “museum-train” only advanced a few kilometers. One of the soldiers who secured it was Paul Rosenberg’s son, who did not know his father’s collection was inside.
During the Liberation of Paris, the Jeu de Paume became a military outpost. Rose Valland stayed and slept there, as artworks she had managed to hide from Nazis all along were hidden downstairs. A watchtower was built in front of its entrance. In these days of battle, guns were pointed at Valland three times.
First by German soldiers inspecting the Jeu de Paume. When Valland wanted to express she wasn’t going to leave the museum. Alone with two guards, she opened the door, and looked in the eye the soldier pointing a gun at her. She then witnessed German soldiers die on the steps of the museum.
Finally when French partisans suspected her of sheltering Germans, and one put a submachine gun on her back. Once they realised their error they protected the Jeu de Paume.
Captain Rose Valland, A Monument Woman
With the Allies came a new type of soldier, the Monuments Men. The Fine Arts Officer affected to Paris was Lieutenant James J. Rorimer, curator of the Metropolitan. Rorimer was yet to realise how much Rose Valland knew. But his attitude meant he slowly gained the trust of this inscrutable woman. One doesn’t spend four years spying in front of Nazis to then reveal secrets to just anybody.
As Rorimer noted, everything happened over Champagne, like in a spy novel. Valland sent him the bottle, sign of a celebration to come. They toasted to the realisation they might just save all these masterpieces.
Valland gave Rorimer a ‘treasure map’. It prevented the destruction of masterpieces, since Allies knew to avoid bombing the collecting points. The Monuments Men were trying to retrieve tens of thousands artworks scattered over a continent ravaged by war. Now they had the location of the repositories, detailed lists of artworks and owners: names and photos of all the Nazis involved.
A Life’s Mission of Recovering Stolen Art
The second part of this saga was to actively retrieve stolen art and return it to its rightful owners. Valland took the uniform in the French Army, becoming Captain Valland, a Monument Woman, with rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the US Army.
She attended the Nuremberg trial and insisted that spoliation would be added to the charges against Nazis. Captain Valland also entered the Russian sector, using cognac bottles to facilitate artwork recovery. In Göring’s castle she discovered two lion statues. She passed them through the Russian checkpoint in a truck, hidden under gravel. During clandestine visits, Valland also spied on Russian troop movements and armament. Underneath a deceptively harmless bookish exterior was a woman of action.
“Rose Valland Endured Four Years Of Daily Renewed Risks In Order To Save Works Of Art”
After the war, it took eight pages for Jacques Jaujard to describe Rose Valland’s contributions. He concluded the report adding that he “ensured that she would obtain the Legion of Honour and the Resistance medal. She received the “Medal of Freedom” for her service, having accepted to endure four years of daily renewed risks in order to save our works of art.”
Rose Valland would later become Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. She received from Germany the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit. With the US Medal of Freedom, she remains one of the most decorated women in French history.
In his draft Rorimer even wrote “Mlle Rose Valland is the heroine of this book”. He added “the one person who above all others enabled us to track down the official Nazi art looters and to engage intelligently in that aspect of the whole picture was Mademoiselle Rose Valland, a rugged, painstaking and deliberate scholar. Her blind devotion to French art made no allowance for any thoughts of personal danger.”
Aged 54, she finally received the title of curator. Then became Chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art. She retired only to become once more an unpaid volunteer, for ten years, to “continue what had been my lifetime’s work.”
Rose Valland, A Major Reference On Nazi Plunder And Looting
Her covert action at the Jeu de Paume was instrumental in documenting the fate of 22,000 artworks. Further, as Captain Valland, with her Monuments Men colleagues, she had a major role in the recovery of 60,000 works of art. Of that number, 45,000 were restituted. Yet “there are at least 100,000 works of art still missing from the Nazi occupation.” Her archives remain a major source for their restitution.
Neither Jaujard or Valland had any interest in the limelight. Jaujard never wrote about saving the Louvre. Valland wrote “le Front de l’Art”, documenting the Nazi art plunder of French art collections. Its title is a pun on ‘Kunst der Front’, Art of the Front. The Luftwaffe organised an exhibition of artworks by German soldiers at the Jeu de Paume. Her answer amounts to an ‘Art Resistance.’
Her book is objective, without any resentment nor attempts at glorifying herself. Yet her dry sense of humor seeps through. Like when she quotes the Nazi report warning that access to the Jeu de Paume must be severely restricted. Otherwise it would be “very convenient for espionage”. She added “he wasn’t wrong!”
Le Front de L’Art
“Le Front de l’Art” was adapted into the movie ‘The Train’ in 1964. She visited the set and was glad the issue of art protection was shown to the public. The movie is dedicated to railway workers, without a single mention of her actions during the previous four years. Her fictional character has less than 10 minutes on screen.
Her book remains a major reference on Nazi plunder, and even though it was adapted by Hollywood, it quickly went out of print. Although she expressed the wish for an English translation, this never came to be.
Rose Valland, A Forgotten Heroine
In her last interview, the journalist described “a charming old lady, in her little flat cluttered with mementos, statues, ship models, paintings, near the Lutèce arenas, in the heart of the Latin quarter. Tall, coquettishly made up, she appears surprisingly young, in spite of her 80 years. As soon as she talks of her museum, she abandons her modest reserve, rises and lights up.”
The following year, she died. She was buried in her native town, with only half a dozen persons in attendance and a ceremony at the Invalides. “The Director of the French Museums administration, the chief curator of the drawings department, myself and a few museum guards were practically the only ones to give her the last tribute she was owed. This woman, who risked her life so often and with such steadfastness, who honored the curator corps and saved the possessions of so many collectors, only got indifference, if not outright hostility.”
Yet those who knew first hand her achievements lauded her. James J. Rorimer, then director of the Metropolitan Museum, wrote “the whole world knows what you have done, and I’m happy to have been one of those who shared some of your glory.”
It took sixty years, in 2005, for a plaque in her honor to be unveiled at the Jeu de Paume. A small token, considering her achievements. How many people can really claim to have “saved some of the beauty of the world”?
There was two different types of looting, from museums, and from private collections. The museum part is told in the story with Jacques Jaujard, the privately owned art is told with Rose Valland.
Ophélie Jouan. Rose Valland, Une vie à l’oeuvre, 2019.
Jean Cassou. Le pillage par les Allemands des oeuvres d’art et des bibliothèques appartenant à des Juifs en France, 1947.
Hector Feliciano. The lost museum : the Nazi conspiracy to steal the world’s greatest works of art.
The report mentioning the “Jewish question” is from Hermann Bunjes to Alfred Rosenberg, August 18, 1942. Otto Abetz, German ambassador in Paris added the proposal that the sums obtained from selling stolen art be used to solve “the problem of the Jewish question”.