Why does one of the most decorated WWII women lack celebrity status in France? Rose Valland (1898-1980) is still little known to her fellow citizens in spite of having been recently portrayed by Cate Blanchett in George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men (2014). Clooney produced this action movie to publicize the activities of a group of Allied men and women, known as the Monuments Men, who were enlisted to protect cultural landmarks and artifacts from destruction during combat in 1944 and 1945.
During the four year-long Nazi occupation of Paris, Valland recorded surreptitiously the occupiers’ extensive looting of private art works. After France was liberated, she was given a military rank and dispatched for 8 years to Allied-occupied Germany as part of a team of French Monuments Men. After spying on the Nazis in France, in Germany it seems she was peeping on the Soviets who were busy doing their own looting. Her goal remained always the same: tracking and recovering artworks looted from France. She returned to France in 1953 where she wrote a memoir recording her activities during the Nazi occupation. For some reason which is not clear, she decided against writing about her activities in Germany, a decision which makes this period puzzling, exciting one’s curiosity.
One question is why Rose Valland was sidelined from the French Pantheon? This blogger sees many reasons for the oversight. First and foremost, she was a woman in a country where Illustriousness is seen as a male attribute. The French Panthéon of all-time greats is a male-only club. To achieve celebrity status in France, women must be either queens or courtesans like Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour. Few have heard of Olympe de Gouge who was an 18th century playwright and political activist. She was guillotined during the revolution and famously said that if women have the right to be executed they should also have the right to speak. Indeed, French women had to wait until 1944 to get the right to vote. This was not a reward for wartime sacrifice and courage such as exemplified by Rose Valland. Rather, General de Gaulle bet on the more conservative female vote to keep the communists from winning the elections! His bet paid off.
Hermann Goering shopping at Jeu de Paume Museum
Rose’s second serious handicap was her modest and rural background. She was not born into a Parisian family and therefore lacked the right connections to get ahead. During the 20th century, Paris was the center of the artistic and intellectual life, all creative energy was concentrated there. Even with an art degree, a provincial girl like Rose Valland could not succeed in the Parisian art world. During the Nazi occupation, she worked as a paid volunteer in the Jeu de Paume museum where the Nazis hoarded and processed their loot. In spite of her accomplishments, Valland did not become a full fledged museum curator until late in her life at 57 (1955).
Her other hurdle was her height and most especially her strong personality. She was very tall for a woman, 1.75 meter (5’8) when the average height of the French paterfamilias was 1.65 meters (5’5). In this period, men disliked women towering over them. During the war, a tall French women was certainly resented by her countrymen who felt both emasculated by their military defeat and belittled by the taller German occupiers. She was also a very determined professional, a no-nonsense operator, and headstrong in her search for looted art and its return to legitimate owners. She was an independent woman at a time when women depended on men for their welfare and place in society. When she was posted in Germany, her almost obsessional quest and operational independence were disliked by her male colleagues who expected women to be docile and dutiful. Not only did she receive little support from them but she made many powerful enemies who tried unsuccessfully to have her sacked.
Rose’s last handicap was the early recognition of her achievements by the Americans. After the liberation of Paris, she was very much sought after by the American Monuments Men. They valued her work both in Paris and in Germany. For the French often envious and leery of the American swagger, the American interest in Rose was suspicious and brought disapproval from her superiors. Rose developed a lasting friendship with Monuments Officer Lt James Rorimer, a museum curator who became the director of New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the war, the Americans awarded Rose the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 1964, the famous Hollywood director John Frankenheimer shot the black-and-white war film The Train based on Rose’s non-fiction 1962 book Le Front de l’art. He and his lead actor Burt Lancaster befriended Rose. The movie was a box office hit and a critic’s favorite. The story takes place in August 1944 outside Paris. Loaded with looted art, a train heading for Germany is stopped thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic hurdles and attacks by Free French forces. Incidentally, these forces were under the command of the son of a famous Jewish art dealer. Paris was liberated soon afterwards. Sadly, about the same time, a train carrying the last Jewish deportees left for Germany and was not stopped by the Resistance forces.
Commemorative plaque Jeu de Paume Museum (2005)
During the 90s, some best seller books particularly those written by Hector Feliciano and Lynn H. Nicholas ensured that Rose Valland’s deeds did not fall into total oblivion. Recently, Robert M. Edsel gave Rose recognition in his 2009 book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. This book was an instant best seller and was translated into 25 languages, French included.
Robert M. Edsel has also written an appreciative foreword to the book Resistance at the Museum, the 2013 English translation of a book written by Mrs. Corinne Bouchoux in 2006. He writes: “Rose Valland is one of the greatest and yet unknown heroines of World War II. After risking her life spying on the Nazis,…Rose lived to fulfill her destiny: locating and returning tens of thousands of works of art stolen by the Nazis during their occupation of France. Yet her remarkable story, like much of her personal life, has remained unknown to the broad public…until now.”
Indeed, it seems that many of Rose Valland’s activities remain unknown, particularly those which took place during her 8 year-long stay in Allied-occupied Germany. Bouchoux’s book provides limited information on this period. She writes that Valland was tightlipped about her activities in Germany. Were they too sensitive to disclose? Rose was an effective spy because she was driven and enigmatic, individualistic and secretive. She was seen as a lone operator by her French colleagues. In passing, Bouchoux mentions Rose’s quarrels with famous French art dealers who consistently vilified her; many of them were shady characters.
Rose travelled surreptitiously to Soviet-occupied Germany in her search for looted French art, but what did she achieve there? Stalin’s army was busy loading into trucks bound for the USSR everything of value they could grab, German or not. It is estimated that some 100,000 works of art were looted by the Germans from France; an estimated 60,000 were located and returned; possibly half of the missing 40,000 were destroyed during combat. Where are the remaining 20,000? Rose would certainly have known where many of these works were to be found. She died with such secrets in 1980. Apparently, many boxes of Rose’s documents are kept by her heirs. These manuscripts and notes could shed light on this mysterious period, revealing the whereabouts of the missing art and activities of the key players in the art world during and after WWII. But after reading Bouchoux’ book, the reader is left with more questions than answers on this post-war period.
Today, stolen art is still being found and returned to its rightful owners, making news headlines. The recent uncovering of Cornelius Gurlitt’s treasure trove and the international exposure it received suggests that the subject is not exhausted, very much to the contrary.
In light of the continued fascination with the whereabouts and restitution of Nazi and Soviet looted art, an investigative biography of Rose Valland is timely.
What did she really do during 8 years in Germany and why did she not publish anything? What prevented C. Bouchoux from reviewing the hidden manuscripts?
Who really was Rose Valland?
Bouchoux, Corinne. Rose Valland, La Résistance au musée. Geste Editions, 2006.
Edsel, Robert M., The Monument Men: Allied heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. 2009.
Feliciano, Hector. The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiring to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art. 1996.
Nicholas, Lynn H., The Rape of Europa, 1994.
Monument Men, 2014 film by George Clooney loosely based on the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel. Columbia Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures.
The Train, 1962 directed by John Frankenheimer. Distributed by United Artists.
 “The Monuments Men were a group of men and women from thirteen nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA. Most had expertise as museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects, and archivists. Their job description was simple: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat”.
 Originally a church, the Panthéon is the place where exceptional Frenchmen are buried. The only woman is Marie Curie who shared the Nobel Prize with her husband. Located in the 5th district of Paris.
 Cornelius’ father, Hildebrand Gurlitt was a German art dealer who dealt in so called “degenerated art” at the request of the Nazi government.