Rose Valland: The French art detective

One of the greatest and yet unknown heroines of World War II is definitely Rose Valland. After risking her life spying on the Nazis, day after day, four long years, Rose lived to fulfill her destiny: locating and returning thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France.

Her remarkable story and personal life are yet unknown to a broad population. This article should help you to get an insight in the life and achievements of the historical and culturally important figure. 

Valland was born in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France on November 1, 1898. After an education in the arts, she earned two degrees from the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She continued her education with degrees in art history from École du Louvre and Sorbonne in Paris. Despite her considerable academic qualifications, Valland began to work at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris as an unpaid volunteer.

In July 1941, when the museum’s curator, Andre Dézarrois, fell ill, Valland assumed charge of the museum, first as a paid “attache” before her promotion to assistant.

In October 1940, during the occupation of Paris, the Nazis hijacked the Jeu de Paume Museum and converted it into the headquarters of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi art looting organization created by Hitler). There, they stored paintings and other works of stolen art from private French collectors and dealers, many of whom were Jews.

Jacques Jaujard, Director of the French National Museums including the Louvre, immediately instructed Valland to remain at her post in the museum to spy on the Nazi theft operation.

Rose listened to German conversations and secretly kept informative notes on the destinations of train car shipments filled with robbed art. She witnessed the frequent “shopping trips” of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who made more than twenty separate visits to the Jeu de Paume to select works of art for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. The Nazi chief also wanted to steal artworks for his  personal collection.

Valland’s simple appearance and quiet behavior proofed the Nazis wrong. In fact, the Nazis were unaware that she understood German.

In late August 1944, Paris was liberated by American forces. 

While she possessed enormously valuable information about the disaster of thousands of masterworks stolen from French collections.

Only after months of relationship by Monuments Man Capt. James Rorimer, Valland agreed to turn over her most important records. The information Valland had risked her life served as a treasure map for Rorimer and the Monuments Men leading to the discovery of multiple repositories of stolen art, most prominently at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. Hidden inside the castle were more than twenty thousand works of art and cultural objects stolen by the Nazis from private collectors and art dealers in France including the Rothschilds, David-Weill, Kahn, Rosenberg, and Bernheim-Jeune. Valland’s secret notes would later be instrumental in expediting the restitution process of returning objects to their rightful owners.

Following her return to France, Valland was appointed a conservator of the Museés Nationaux. In 1954 she was named “Chef du Service de protection des oeuvres d’art” (Commission for the Protection of Works of Art).

She published her experiences in the book, Le Front de L’Art (1961), which also inspired the Hollywood film, The Train (1964).

Rose died on September 18, 1980. Today she can be seen as the greatest champion of France’s artistic patrimony during World War II.

Find out more about Rose Valland’s book “Resistance at the museum” here.






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