Rose Valland (1898-1980)
The unassuming heroine of French culture during World War II, Rose Antonia Maria Valland was born in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France, on November 1, 1898. Extensively educated in the arts, she studied at the École nationale des beaux-arts in Lyon and then at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris. She furthered her education at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne in Paris. Despite her considerable academic credentials, Valland began work at the Jeu de Paume in Paris as an unpaid volunteer. In September 1938, Valland assumed charge of the museum when its curator, Andre Dézarrois, fell ill, overseeing its operations and collections.
In October 1940 during the occupation of Paris, the Nazis commandeered the Jeu de Paume and converted it into the headquarters and clearing house of the Sonderstab Bildende Kunst (Special Staff for Pictorial Art) of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (the ERR, a Nazi art looting organization headed by Alfred Rosenberg). There, they stored paintings and other works of art stolen from private French collectors and dealers, many of whom were Jewish. 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.
As the cultural patrimony of France passed through the doors of the Jeu de Paume, Valland eavesdropped on German conversations and secretly kept meticulous notes on the destinations of train car shipments filled with looted art. She witnessed the frequent shopping trips of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who made twenty-one visits to the Jeu de Paume to select works of art for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, and to add to his burgeoning personal collection. Valland’s simple appearance and quiet demeanor belied her cleverness. Although suspicious of her, the Nazis remained mostly unaware that she understood German, enabling her to gather critical information from the conversations of drivers, guards, and packers, which she relayed to Jaujard and the French Resistance. Had the Nazis caught her—and they came perilously close on two separate occasions—she would surely have been shot as a spy.
The liberation of Paris by American forces in late August 1944 placed Valland in a new but still precarious position. While she possessed enormously valuable information about the fate of tens of thousands of masterworks stolen from French collections, the problem of collaborationism in liberated France left her trusting no one but Jaujard. Only after months of relationship building by Monuments Man Capt. James J. Rorimer, did Valland agree to turn over her most important records. The information Valland had risked her life gathering served as a treasure map for Rorimer and the Monuments Men, leading to the discovery of multiple repositories of looted art, most notably what was stored in Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. Hidden inside were more thousands of 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, among others. Valland’s notes would later be instrumental in expediting the restitution process of returning these objects to their rightful owners.
Eager to track the works of art stolen from France, Valland applied for and received a commission into the French First Army on May 4, 1945. She remained a dauntless advocate for the return of looted French-owned art in various positions as a restitution officer and art representative, serving as secretary of the Commission de récupération artistique (Commission for the Recovery of Works of Art) and head of the Services des beaux-arts (Fine Arts Service) of the French Group Control Council for Germany and the Service de remise en place des œuvres d’art (SRPOA, or the Service for the Restoration of Works of Art). Valland worked closely with the Monuments Men and Women at the various collecting points, identifying works of art belonging to France.
Following her return to France, Valland was appointed a curator of the Musées Nationaux (French National Museums). In 1954, she was named head of the Service de protection des oeuvres d’art (SPOA, or the Service for the Protection of Works of Art). She published an account of her wartime experiences in the memoir Le front de l’art: Défense des collections françaises 1939–1945 (1961), which also inspired the 1964 Hollywood film, The Train, starring Burt Lancaster.
For her heroic efforts, Valland was honored as an officer of the Légion d’honneur, awarded the médaille de la Résistance française, and was made a commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Abroad, she was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom and the officer’s cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1948 and 1972, respectively. Despite these many honors, it wasn’t until 1953, after twenty years of service to the French museums, that Rose Valland, perhaps the most highly decorated woman in France, received the title of curator. Although Valland retired in 1968, she remained active in the art community and continued her dogged efforts to find and return works of art that had been stolen from France during the war.
Rose Valland died on September 18, 1980. She is buried in her hometown of Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs. Today, the Association La mémoire de Rose Valland is committed to educating the public about the efforts of one of the greatest champions of France’s artistic patrimony during World War II.