The Monuments Woman: The French Spy who Rescued Stolen Art

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The Monuments Woman: The French Spy who Rescued Stolen Art
There is a plaque on the wall of the Jeu de Paume, in the Tuileries Gardens, which commemorates one of World War II’s least-known heroines: Rose Valland. She was an art curator at the museum who single-handedly ensured that thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis could be traced and, finally, repatriated to their rightful owners. While other Resistance heroines, such as Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle, have been gradually acknowledged (at least in France) for their roles during the war, Rose Valland has remained unknown to most people.  Rose was born in 1898 in the Isère department, deepest provincial France. Her father was a modest blacksmith. She won a scholarship to train as an art teacher, followed up with further studies at the Écoles des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and Paris. Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, she studied art history while working, and she obtained a special diploma from the École du Louvre in 1933. The previous year she had become a volunteer curator at the Jeu de Paume, home to the nation’s biggest collection of Impressionist paintings at the time.  Portrait of Rose Valland. Unknown photographer. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons In 1938 Rose took charge of the museum when its director fell ill. On the orders of Jacques Jaujard, directeur des Musées Nationaux, she stayed at the Jeu de Paume when the Nazis arrived in 1940. At that point she was given a job at the ERR (Reich Leader Rosenberg Institute), whose role was to oversee the removal of works of art to Germany. These artworks had been looted and stolen from museums and private collections, many owned by Jews who were deported. The Jeu de Paume served as a central storage and sorting depot before the works were sent to Germany.   On Jaujard’s instructions Rose became a spy ‘on the inside’, feeding information to her former boss, who passed it on to the Resistance. As crates of art moved through the Jeu de Paume, she meticulously, and secretly, recorded the contents in private notebooks, noting the names of their rightful owners, where the works had come from, and their precise destinations in Germany. (Jaujard is another unsung war hero. He had overseen the removal of the Louvre’s most famous and priceless works in the weeks leading up to the German invasion, ensuring that they remained safely hidden in obscure cellars, attics and even caves all over France.) 

Lead photo credit : Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. Photo Credit: TCY/Wikimedia Commons

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Beverley Gillard
    2024-01-28 12:30:52
    Beverley Gillard
    thank you for this inspiring story of a special woman in history. Bverley


  • Blair Jackson
    2024-01-27 03:48:28
    Blair Jackson
    Fascinating! Thia would make a great multipart TV series (or a feature film)!