Ethics Hero Emeritus: Rose Valland (1898-1980)


The remarkable 2008 documentary “The Rape of Europa” tells the story of the Nazi plundering of fine art across Europe. It is full of many accounts of heroism, none more impressive than that of Rose Villand, a meek-looking librarian out of central casting, who is as perfect and example of how ordinary people can rise to extraordinary levels of courage and innovation in times of crisis.

Rose Valland was born in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, France on November 1, 1898. She earned two degrees in the arts from the École des Beaux-Arts in Lyon and also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, then added degrees in art history from both the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne. Her academic credentials, however, did not immediately advance her career, as Valland began work at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris as an unpaid volunteer.

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, or ERR, the Nazi art looting organization created by frustrated artist Adolf Hitler. There The Nazis stored paintings and other works of art stolen from private French collectors and dealers, including thousands of works taken from Jewish-owned galleries. The museum’s collaborating curator, Andre Dézarrois, fell ill in the summer of 1941, and in a stroke of fate for civilization, Valland became the de facto director of the museum. Jacques Jaujard, Director of the French National Museums including the Louvre, gave Valland a daunting assignment: she was to use her post in the museum to spy on the Nazi art theft operation.

The Germans, as explained in “The Rape of Europa,” took scant notice of the “little mouse” of a woman who kept her head down, seldom spoke, and appeared to follow orders. They didn’t even realize that she spoke German, but under their noses she was acquiring crucial information from the conversations of drivers, guards, and packers relating to the looted art treasures…60,000 of them. Villand witnessed the frequent shopping trips of Nazi Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering as he 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 his own personal collection. Possessing a remarkable memory for details, she recorded her discoveries regarding the movements, names of the victims, number of pieces and where they were going, names of the agents responsible for transfers, names of the carriers, brands of the boxes, numbers and dates of convoys,as well as the names of the artists and the dimensions of the pieces that passed before her. She relayed the information to Jaujard and the French Resistance while keeping her own meticulous records. She warned the Resistance of convoys containing important artworks so that they would be spared, all while knowing that she would be executed as a spy if her activities were discovered by the Nazis—and at least twice, they nearly caught her.

When Paris was liberated by American forces in late August 1944, Valland was still in peril. Though she possessed enormously valuable information about the fate of tens of thousands of masterpieces stolen from French collections, her apparent cooperation with the Nazi left her at risk of being tried as a collaborator. Eventually, months of building a relationship of trust with “Monuments Man” Capt. James Rorimer, in part by alerting the Allies to the locations of the German and Austrian art depots so they would not be destroyed in bombing raids, Valland could turn over her records. They served as virtual treasure maps for Rorimer and General Eisenhower’s Monuments Men to find vast repositories of looted art, most notably at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps. Hidden inside that castle were more than twenty thousand works of art and cultural objects stolen by the Nazis from French private collectors and art dealers. Valland’s extensive notes later were instrumental in returning looted art objects to their rightful owners.

Finally able to openly continue her mission of helping to recover the art treasures whose theft she had tracked, Valland applied for and received a commission in the French First Army in 1945. She worked closely with the other Monuments Men at sites, identifying works of art belonging to France. In 1954 she was named Chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art, and . recorded her experiences in her book, Le Front de L’Art (1961). The 1964 Hollywood film, “The Train,” starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, relied heavily on her accounts.

Unlike many heroes of World War II, Valland received recognition during her lifetime. She was awarded the Legion of Honor, the Medal of the Résistance, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, was made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government, and in 1948 was awarded the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Truman. Valland retired in 1968 but continued her efforts to find and return stolen works of art until her death on September 18, 1980.

Hardly any Americans know her name. That needs to change.

8 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Rose Valland (1898-1980)

  1. Too bad “The Monuments Men” was such a forgettable movie despite it’s cast of high profile stars. I wonders if the majority of millennials really give a damn about the looting of Europe’s great art by Nazis in this age of cancellation culture.

  2. Jack, thanks so much for this piece. When I was in culinary school in Paris in the mid-80s, I went to the Jeu de Paume at least once a month (the whole place was spectacular, but there were a couple of Renoir paintings there I could gaze at for hours). I never knew the story of Ms. Valland or that place’s role in the Nazi plunder of art. An ethics hero indeed!!!!

    By the way, for those who don’t know: the Jeu de Paume – previously a weird indoor tennis court for French royalty – was where the Louvre exhibited its collection of Impressionist art. That collection has since been moved to the Gare D’Orsay, across the river in the 7th Arrondisment.

    • We watched a movies few weeks ago called “Resistance” and, let me tell you – I was surprised. I hate mimes, and miming in general, and all things having to mimery. Yet, I had no idea Marcel Marceau played a huge role in saving the lives of many, many Jewish children during Nazi occupied France. He was a righteous man.

      I still hate mimery, though.


  3. Thanks, these stories left enough records but too much is made of ephemeral celebs instead of real heroes or even the more iconic fictional who made sacrifices for the greater good instead of their tribe. The destruction of the cultural hero idea beginning mid century may be one of the more profound tragedies of the last century. Not enough are aware of this being swept away in this age of the superhero blockbuster, but even they are being systematically savaged.

    I would love to see a return of a feature like Paul Harvey’s ‘Rest of the Story’ because people need to relearn that everyday heroes make a huge impact compared to people who are given a power exosuit or can blast energy beams at bank robbers. A hero isn’t just powers, but what people choose to do when it costs them to do the right thing. I respect someone who believes opposite myself if they’ve put their fanny on the line, not stayed anonymous with stupid petitions or joining social media witch hunts. They really need to understand the hunts and mass hysterias’ violence of earlier nuttery before they throw any stones in their glass palaces.

  4. When we did our required study abroad semester in the College of Architecture, we went to Texas A&M’s facility in Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy. The prominent faculty member there, Paolo Barucchieri, was a professor of Art and Architectural history. He recounted (and we have no reason to assume he’s inflating his story – though it’s always a possibility) how as a child his dad had folded up a large panel of boards and slid it under his bed and he was not to worry about it or mess with it. Just leave it alone.

    At the end of the war the boards were taken out and returned to a prominent duomo. Turned out to be a famous triptych that his dad had been entrusted with hiding like many others in Italy who didn’t want their culture to be looted.

    Here’s a more detailed article:

    Santa Chiara Study Center

    “An interesting update for Santa Chiara alumni:

    Vincenzo Barucchieri, father of Paolo Barucchieri, was recognized May 11, 2019 for his efforts during WW II to save and preserve important art work that was collected from many areas of Italy. The Barucchieri family lived in two small towns located in the Marche Region where Vincenzo was sent by the government. All works of art were stored in unlabeled wooden crates. The total number of pieces of art involved was 7821. Among hidden work was the Pala D’Oro from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, works by Giorgione, Tiziano, Tiepolo, Piero Della Francesca, Raphael, Mantegna and the list continues. This story was discussed many times in the family, but not known to the general public until in the 90’s the mayor of Sassocorvaro stumbled over documents in the city archive. Slowly the story was uncovered and recognized by the general public.
    Paolo shared this story with many of his students and even visited Carpegna with some. He was at a local bar near the Palazzo where they had lived with the stored crates of art work; while he told the story, a man approached him and asked how he knew all those details. When he explained who he was, the gentleman turned out to be the owner of the Palazzo and had known Paolo as a young boy. Paolo and the mayor of Castiglion Fiorentino , Giuseppe Alpini had talked about the events and Giuseppe brought a book he had purchased in Urbino that explained the project to save the Art. At the time, Giuseppe had never met anyone in the Barucchieri family, but fifty years later they were living in his town and had become good friends. For several years it seemed that Vincenzo was a strong candidate to receive this prestigious recognition, but for many reasons had not been finalized. The Barucchieri family attended a ceremony in Carpegna 11 May 2019 that formalized the decision to award the Premio Rotondi 2019 to Vincenzo Barucchieri. The only regret was that Paolo couldn’t have seen his proposal concluded.”

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