Labor of LouvreLabor of Louvre

The Frenchman who saved the Mona Lisa

Documentary highlights story of Jacques Jaujard, deputy head of Paris museum, who kept priceless art out of Nazi hands

Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the Louvre in Paris during World War II. (screen capture: YouTube)
Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the Louvre in Paris during World War II. (screen capture: YouTube)

A French documentary has revealed a forgotten national hero who help protect some of the country’s most valued art pieces from Nazi looters.

The documentary “Illustre et Inconnu” (Illustrious Yet Unknown), released late last month, highlights the heroic work of Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the Louvre museum in Paris during World War II.

Jaujard, a committed art lover, hid all of the world-renowned museum’s contents, including Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa, and France’s entire public art collection just 10 days before the outbreak of World War II.

A staunch opponent of Nazi appeasement, Jaujard began hiding artwork without ever receiving an order to do so; the deputy head of the Lourve strongly distrusted the Nazis and, with cunning, was able to recruit hundreds of volunteers to help scatter the priceless pieces in private homes throughout the country.

One of Jaujard’s employees, Rose Valland, had secretly kept tabs on paintings looted by the Nazis from private collections and helped return 45,000 pieces after the war ended in 1945, as depicted in the 2014 George Clooney film “The Monuments Men.”

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

According to a feature published Saturday by the Guardian, a British newspaper, Jaujard and his staff had closed the museum in the days leading up to the war under the guise of “maintenance work.” For three days and nights Jaujard and a team of museum employees and art students masterfully packed up countless pieces of art and used a convoy of delivery trucks, private cars, ambulances, taxis and vans to whisk away the pieces to safe houses throughout France.

When France fell to the Nazis 1940, Adolf Hitler sent Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, the overseer of France’s art collection, to the Louvre to repossess the museum’s invaluable collection. According to Jaujard’s diary, Wolff-Metternich, a German aristocrat who was not strongly attached to the Nazi cause, expressed relief that the Louvre was empty and assisted Jaujard in keeping the museum’s contents out of hands of the art-hungry Nazi high command.

Jaujard worked tirelessly to keep the pieces hidden from the Nazis and managed to preserve delicate artifacts, like the 4,000-year-old Egyptian Seated Scribe statue, by dispatching electric heaters and hydrometric devices to various safe houses.

After France was liberated by Allied forces in 1944, the pieces began making their way back to the museums that originally housed them.

Miraculously, not one piece of art was damaged throughout the entire clandestine operation.

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