It was October 1940. World War II was well underway and Paris was under Nazi occupation. Rose Valland was an assistant curator of Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. Nazis burst into the museum halls, took over the building and turned it into the headquarters for the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), an organization specially created by Hitler to loot cultural objects. The ERR members used the space as storage for French works of art. During this time of the museum’s occupation, Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musées Nationaux, instructed Valland to remain at the museum and to keep an eye on the Nazis and spy on their activities.
The Nazis allowed Valland to remain at the museum. While she was there she made sure to keep her head down and not make herself really known. However, she was paying special attention to all of the artwork that went in and out of the museum. Also, she made sure to listen in on any important information she could get from the conversations the Germans had because she secretly knew German. She compiled these findings in the form of detailed notes.
The Jeu de Paume Museum often was visited by a prominent Nazi officer, Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering who would often pick out pieces for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. Although, with each visit he would also grab pieces for his personal collection as well. These actions didn’t go undocumented. Valland made sure of that through her ability to float around unnoticed and grab key intelligence.
Eventually, late August 1944 rolled around and France was liberated from German occupation. Valland knew she had important information that would allow her to save a large amount of artworks. However, she grew a distrust of sharing this information with anyone besides Jaujard.
Enter the Monuments Men, a group of elite men and women dedicated to the protection of monuments, art and cultural relics. Captain James Rorimer spent months building a relationship and trust with Valland to release the precious information she held to him and his team. In time, she agreed to hand over her notes to them. These notes and her cooperation allowed the Monuments Men to trace down places where the Nazis had hidden the artwork away. One place being Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps, holding more than twenty thousand works of art and cultural objects from French art collectors and dealers.
Eventually, tens of thousands of artworks were recovered due to Valland’s critical role and willingness to lay her life on the line for sake of art and culture. France awarded her the title of a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, and in 1948, the US Government awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. However, although she played such a critical role in a huge rescue of cultural treasures, she fell into anonymity.
I used to immediately think of James Bond when I heard the word “spy.” But now I’ll think of Rose Valland whenever I hear that word. Her bravery and dedication to the arts and culture is something that holds her in high esteem in my book. So move over 007 - It’s Valland, Rose Valland that’s the star in my mind.