• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

How France's greatest works of art were saved from the Nazis

The Mona Lisa being prepared for removal to safety. Photo/Alamy

Gerri Chanel outlines a curator's ingenious plan that saved France’s greatest art treasures from falling into Nazi hands.

Call me a philistine, but I’ve always been a little underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa. Each time I’ve been to the Louvre and negotiated the scrum of tourists around her, I’ve quickly found my attention wandering. Sure, the delicate way Leonardo da Vinci created that half-smile is brilliant. But in no time, I’m spending much longer contemplating Paolo Veronese’s huge canvas The Wedding Feast at Cana, which hangs opposite.

Happily for me, US journalist Gerri Chanel’s Saving Mona Lisa is only occasionally about the World’s Most Famous Painting. The book’s subtitle is “The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures from the Nazis”.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

As soon as war broke out in 1939, the Louvre’s chief curator, Jacques Jaujard, put his detailed plan into action. A convoy of more than 200 trucks evacuated 3120 of the Louvre’s 3691 paintings. Later convoys took statues, sketches and antiquities. Most were secreted in various châteaux along the Loire. Some were hidden in a monastery and galleries in France’s south-west. When the Nazis marched into Paris, the great palace was almost empty.

Jaujard’s aim was to protect all these treasures from possible bombing. But as it happened, central Paris was scarcely bombed during the war. The real threat came during the occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime, which was only too willing to give Nazi bosses what they wanted. What some of them wanted was to loot France’s greatest art treasures.

Adolf Hitler, left, and Hermann Göring at Carinhall in 1937. Photo/Getty Images

Otto Abetz, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Alfred Rosenberg had their eyes on specific paintings. Heinrich Himmler had a thing about the Bayeux Tapestry (housed in Brittany) and wanted to get his hands on it. He never succeeded. The worst and most notorious looter of all was Hermann Göring, who would have carried whole galleries away if he could, to decorate his country mansion, Carinhall, or offer as presents to the Führer.

That these Nazis were largely thwarted in these plans can be credited to Jaujard’s “passive resistance”. He was adept at delaying tactics, or playing one Nazi or Vichy official off against another to ensure that most artworks were not taken out of France, even if Göring did scuttle off with much loot.

Jaujard co-operated closely with the Resistance in the latter stages of the war. More than once he was able to deter retreating German troops, turned particularly nasty as they smelt defeat, from setting fire to art-filled châteaux. It was heartening to note that at least one senior German official, Franz von Wolff-Metternich, saw attempted looting as immoral and covertly assisted Jaujard in his schemes. After the war, the French Government awarded both Jaujard and Wolff-Metternich the Legion of Honour for their work.

And the Mona Lisa? The painting spent the war hidden first in the Loc-Dieu Abbey, then in a gallery in Montauban. Late in 1945, it was returned, undamaged, to the Louvre and was one of the first works to be put back on public display.

SAVING MONA LISA, by Gerri Chanel (Allen & Unwin, $32.99)

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.