Rose Valland: the savior of masterpieces

Winged victory Samorthrace being packed

By Stephen Eaker

Rose Valland was one of the greatest heroines of the twentieth century. Art historian, captain in the French military, member of the French Resistance during World War II, one of the most decorated women in French history, she was the savior of thousands of artworks that were stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. Yet her story remains unknown to many people.

Rose Valland was born November 1, 1898, into a modest family in Saint Etienne de Saint Geoirs, located in the southeastern corner of France. Her father was a blacksmith. Like many gifted students from humble backgrounds, she received a scholarship to a teachers’ school. She graduated in 1918 at the age of 20, when World War I was approaching its conclusion. She continued her studies at the School of Fine Arts in Lyon, was the top student in her level and graduated in 1922. She then pursued two more years of intensive study in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, graduated in 1925 and became a high school drawing teacher. Rose then studied art history at the Ecole du Louvre and the University of Paris, graduating in 1931. Afterwards, she began her graduate studies at the prestigious College de France.

In 1932, she became an unpaid volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum. She hoped that one day her education and expertise would allow her to become a paid curator at the Louvre, but with her humble social background and status, an assistant curator position was about all she could expect.

Her love of art was so great that she did not seem to mind being an unpaid volunteer. She could work with the artworks that she so religiously adored. She traveled to Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s with her volunteer art career. This would prove to be a most valuable asset, as she learned how to speak, read and understand German.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, it became obvious to many that another war with Germany was inevitable. By 1938, the Louvre and other museums in Paris were conducting evacuation drills for their art collections, preparing for a possible invasion by the Nazis. In 1940, France fell to Nazi rule and occupation within six weeks.

Rose Valland and several others were put in charge of the Jeu de Paume Museum. The Nazis dismissed them all except for Rose Valland. The short, mousy and unassuming French lady became the paid overseer of the museum in 1941, responsible for building maintenance. She had also been given orders by the French authorities to spy on the Nazis and keep up with their activities.

The Nazi organization, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzen Gebiete (The Reich Leader Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories), or ERR, began the systematic plundering and looting of art treasures from museums and private collections in France. Hitler had given orders to Rosenberg and the ERR to confiscate all valuable artworks that belonged to French Jews. The Jeu de Paume Museum became the collecting and sorting center for all of the stolen art treasures.

Rose Valland had several secrets, but the biggest one was that she read and spoke fluent German, a fact never disclosed to the Nazis. While Rose watered the potted palms of the little museum and made sure the sinks and toilets worked, she also was busy spying on the Nazis and the ERR at the Jeu de Paume.

Rose risked her life for four long years, compiling data on all the artwork the Nazis had stolen and brought to the Jeu de Paume. With her incredible memory, she recorded the details of every artwork that had been stolen: including which French collections the paintings had been stolen from, where the art was being shipped in Germany and the names of the Nazi officials who possessed the confiscated art works. I invite you to meet this untiring and courageous woman whose selfless acts ensured the discovery and recovery of thousands of stolen artworks after World War II.

“Rose Valland: The Savior of Masterpieces”
Wed, Aug 13, 4:30 and 6:30pm
La Ostra Roja
A Casa Verde annex
San Jorge 45
Colonia San Antonio (off Refugio)
130 pesos
Reservations: 121-1026 or

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