It is 1940 and World War II had been raging for two long years. France had just fallen to the Germans, who occupied much of the northern part of country, including Paris; home to the Jeu de Paume Museum. Within the museum worked a highly educated young woman named Rose Valland, who received multiple degrees in fine arts and art history from prestigious universities such as the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, Ecole de Louvre and Sorbonne University. Having gained the position of assistant before the German Occupation, she was required to stay once the city fell to maintain the museums records.
For four years, the Germans used the Jeu de Paume as their sorting ground for art and objects looted during the war by the Nazi’s, most of which was taken from private Jewish collectors, though some was also looted from French National Galleries. Once in the gallery, the art was sorted, with some pieces going to Hermann Goring’s own collection (he chose 594 pieces) while the rest was to go to Adolf Hitler’s Furhermuseum in Linz, Austria. The Nazi’s cataloged and wrapped the art before shipping it by train or truck to hiding spots throughout Germany all the while not realizing that Rose spoke German and could understand what they were saying and where they were taking the nations art. With her close proximity to the looting, she kept records of her own, working in affiliation with loyal truck drivers, packers and guards. She shared in bits and pieces her information with her former colleague, Jaques Jaujard, the Director of the Musees Nationalaux and the French Resistance. It wasn’t until six months after the Allied Invasion of France in (June) 1944 that she finally divulged the entirety of the information she held to James Rorimer of the Monuments Men, a group of men and women tasked by Franklin D. Roosevelt to protect cultural properties during the war. Rose Valland not only was absolutely instrumental in the discovery of where the looted art had been hidden but in the restitution of nearly twenty thousand pieces of art.
Because of the risk she took to her own life to preserve hundreds of years worth of art, she became the most decorated women in French history having gained the following titles and honors:
French Legion of Honor
Medal of the Resistance
Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (by the French government)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (by the U.S. government 1948)
Officers Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany
And after twenty years of service to French art museums, finally received the title of “Curator” in 1953.
Many books and movies have been made about Ms. Valland including the new George Clooney-written and directed film, The Monuments Men, based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel. Rose Valland is portrayed by the character Claire Simone played by the lovely Cate Blanchett.