The brave woman who saved art

Written by Shombit Sengupta | Published:June 23, 2013 5:22 am

After a few days of work last March,Bernard Gaud,my business partner in Lyon,France,took me to his country house in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs. This beautiful village is in south-eastern France,on the banks of the Isere river that comes from the Isere glacier in the Alps and falls into the Rhone river.

On my asking him,Bernard said this 3,500-people village has been a commune of farmers and merchants since the 15th century. In the 18th century,Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs was the home of a famous smuggler and highwayman,Louis Mandrin. Born on February 11,1725,he was the French Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. His home is still a part of the village.

Today,in spite of the recession and almost 15 per cent unemployment in France,this village is quite vibrant with some industrial and agricultural activity. Being just 40 km from Grenoble,host of the first Winter Olympics in 1968,and now famous as the technology hub of France,Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs contributes to technology too. This is where plastic tubing for underground cables was


It was raining when we reached the village. Bernard and I set out to the local boulangerie to buy fresh bread for dinner. Bernard pointed out a large fresco that occupied the full fascia of the adjacent building. The French government baptised this as the memorial of a brave French woman,Madame Rose Valland,who was born here on November 1,1898. The house facade had an illustrative,realistic painting that had Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa wrapped up in paper and rope ready to be shipped,along with several other paintings of famous artists like Millet among others. There were large wooden boxes,in one of which was written “Art degenere supprimer (Degenerate art for destruction)”. This is how the Nazi Germans labelled and insulted art. It was pouring so heavily that day that I put it in my agenda to spend more time here the next time. Last week,on June 19,I returned to this fresco again. Let me share with you the incredible activities of this valiant woman that saved precious art treasures of France.

Art historian Rose Valland worked as overseer of the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris,in front of Place de la Concorde,when German Nazis occupied France during World War II. The Germans then had formed the “Special Staff for Pictorial Art” to very systematically plunder French art. The official platform adopted by the Nazi regime was to prohibit modern art and promote official art called “heroic art” that symbolised racially pure art done by “pure breed” artists. “Degenerate art” was a Nazi racist-cultural theory that art declined to corruption when created by modern artists who were not of Aryan race. Such modern art deviated from the prescribed Nazi norm of classical beauty. They first applied this theory to visual art and later the term “degenerate art” was extended to music,literature and cinema. This is another masterpiece of “butcher” Hitler’s administrative prowess,that he never left any space or gap where the Nazi regime did not infiltrate. He even brought racism into art forms.

Rose Valland was a member of the French Resistance. She pretended in front of the Germans that she did not understand German so she could act against the occupation. For four years,she secretly recorded details of more than 20,000 paintings stolen from different museums and of private Jewish-owned art that passed through her museum. She risked her life and kept track of where and to whom in Germany the artworks were shipped. She alerted the French Underground about railroad shipments of art to prevent them from mistakenly blowing up trains that were carrying France’s priceless treasures. Although the Nazi purportedly were taking the paintings for destruction,Rose Valland has recorded that she saw that high-ranking Nazi officials,like Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring,who came on May 3,1941,visited the museum to personally select from the stolen French paintings for their own private collection.

If you have seen the 1964 Hollywood film The Train by John Frankenheimer,it was loosely based on Rose Valland’s story. On August 1,1944,after the Liberation of Paris,Valland found out the German plan to transfer five last box cars full of art,including many modern paintings they had earlier neglected. She immediately passed the information to the Resistance,and they made sure the train could not leave Paris. The French Army later liberated the train. After Paris was liberated by the Allied Forces,Rose Valland worked in the Commission for the Recovery of Works of Art,was appointed a conservator of the French Musées Nationaux and in 1954 was named Chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art. In 1961,she wrote about her wartime experiences in the book Le front de l’art.

After retirement,she returned to Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs. The inscription in the fresco there bears testimony to her passion for her work,her country and for art. She risked her life,“For everybody who fought in the World War II and to save art to save the beauty of the world.” If Rose Valland had not been vigilant and in love with the value of art,with its emotion and culture,the world today would have been bereft of treasures that were collected in French museums for centuries. Watching Rose Valland dressed in military uniform,I was left stunned,staring at this graceful,fearless woman.

Shombit Sengupta is an international consultant to top management on differentiating business strategy with execution excellence (

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