Lt. Col. Jean Prinet (1912-1991)
A well-respected librarian and archivist, Jean François Maxime Prinet was born in Rambouillet, France in 1912 to parents André, a magistrate, and Marie. He attended the Lycée Henri-IV, where his appreciation for German art and culture began. In 1927, a couple of years before he would graduate, he won the prestigious David Weill scholarship. For the first time he would live away from his family, spending one month in Mayence (Mainz) Germany to learn the language and culture, and this appreciation for Germany would continue with further trips in his twenties. While studying at the L’Institut d’art et d’archéologie and the Ecole du Louvre, he spent time in Bonn, Tubingen, and later Marbourg in 1933, where he received another scholarship to study at the presitigious Art Insitute. While he was surrounded by intellectual masters and fellow students, he also witnessed the rise of the Nazi party while being hosted with a local Jewish family.
Upon his graduation, Prinet joined the National Library of France in Paris, where he worked in the Prints department. In 1937 and 1938 he helped pack and evacuate these collections out of Paris. Soon after the war began, he joined the Ministry of Information, working as the private secretary to Julien Cain, secretary-general and his former boss at the National Library. When the Germans invaded Paris in 1940, he moved with the government to Vichy, but soon returned to Paris and his young wife and son to continue work at the National Library. He continued in the Prints department until 1944, when he was moved to the Administration department in order to help with reconstruction.
It was during this time that he served as a French Restitution Representative to the Offenbach Archival Depot in Offenbach and Baden-Baden, Germany. In 1946 he travelled to Germany and worked alongside fellow French Monuments Men Maj. Paul de la Boulaye and Maj. Philippe Gangnat to identify and inspect thousands of books and archival materials stolen from France by the Nazis. These three Monuments Men also helped the Depot secure the necessary amount of nails, lumber, freight cars, and other critical items needed to pack, crate, and ship the fragile documents back to France, as he describes here,
“We needed crates, but I didn't have the wood to make them; I was going to the sawmill, but the sawmill had no more boards, so I had to go look for trees; I was going into the forest, but it was not the right sector: you had to go to the Belgian sector to have the trees cut down. Then you needed nails, but that was in another area, and you had to requisition the nails. Then you had to make boxes and put the books in them. During the night, the Germans sabotaged the work of the day.”
He remained at the Offenbach Archival Depot until March 1946, when he and his countryman returned to France. For all his hard work, Prinet returned to Paris with two whole trains filled with books. Upon their departure, Monuments Man Col. Seymour J. Pomrenze, Director of the Depot, submitted an official Letter of Appreciation conveying his “sincere thanks and appreciation” for their “aid and services to this installation.”
At the end of 1947, he was sent on a similar mission, but this time to Poland. While he found many of the books that he was looking for, and the locals and his Polish colleagues were welcoming and helpful, he was met with stagnation and bureaucracy by the Soviet authorities. Whenever he would submit material as the property of France, they would contest it and ask for further proof. This continued until he was asked to return to Paris, this time empty-handed. The books remained in Poland.
After he returned from Poland, he rejoined the Prints Department of the National Library and was soon promoted to Assistant Curator, then Curator. In 1954 he became the Conservator in Chief of the National Library. He, however, did not stop there. As well as lecturing at the Ecole du Louvre from 1951 to 1954, he participated in the Organisation européenne de coopération économique in the 1950s, and continued to travel for work and study. He was awarded the Legion of Honour, the Commandeur des Palmes Académiques, and the Chevalier des Art et des Lettres.
Jean Prinet passed away in Paris on 6th November, 1991.