Rose Valland (1898-1980)
The unassuming heroine of French culture during World War II, Rose Valland was born in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France on November 1, 1898. Extensively educated 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 furthered her education with degrees in art history from both the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne in Paris. Despite her considerable academic credentials, Valland began 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 commandeered the Jeu de Paume Museum and converted it into the headquarters of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi art looting organization created by Adolf Hitler). There, they stored paintings and other works of art stolen 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.
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 Nazi Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering, 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, and to add to his burgeoning personal collection. Valland’s simple appearance and quiet demeanor belied her cleverness.In fact, the Nazis remained 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 Résistance.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 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 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, among others. Valland’s secretly gathered notes would later be instrumental in expediting the restitution process of returning objects to their rightful owners.
Eager to track the tens of thousands of 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 as an art representative for the Commission de Récupération Artistique (the French Commission on Art Recovery), and worked closely with the other Monuments Men at the various collecting points identifying works of art belonging to France.
Following her return to France, Valland was appointed a conservator of the Musées Nationaux. In 1954 she was named Chair of the Chef du Service de protection des oeuvres d’art (Commission for the Protection of Works of Art). She published an account of her experiences in the book, Le Front de L’Art (1961), which also inspired the 1964 Hollywood film, The Train, starring Burt Lancaster.
For her heroic efforts, Valland received the Legion of Honor, the Medal of the Résistance, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. In addition, she was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1948. 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 de la Mémoire de Rose Valland is committed to educating the public about the efforts of the greatest champion during World War II of France’s artistic patrimony.