An Unknown Hero: How Jacques Jaujard Saved the Louvre

Paris–“To lead is to anticipate.” That was the motto of Jacques Jaujard who as director of the Louvre Museum before and during World War Two organized the evacuation of 4,000 masterpieces from the Louvre Museum, as early as 1938 and 1939, just before World War Two was declared. In organizing the removal of such works as the Mona Lisa and the ancient Egyptian Seated Scribe, Jaujard was able to foil Hitler’s greed, fool the government of Vichy, save France’s priceless cultural treasures and protect lives from the Nazi occupant. That story is finally being told in a superb documentary that was aired on France 3 on January 19, 2016 and which should be aired on both the BBC and PBS–as well as made into a book.

What is even more remarkable, is that Jaujard orchestrated a dress rehearsal for this exploit by helping to orchestrate the evacuation of masterpieces from the Prado Museum in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. He arranged  for a convoy of 70 trucks in 1938 to cross the Pyrenees and take them to Geneva, Switzerland, to make sure they would be safe and sound.

Narrated by the French actor Mathieu Amalric, this gripping documentary is filled with eye-witness accounts, period photography and film, and original archives, reveals a man who was discreet, romanesque, elegant, methodical and determined. In 1940, after France’s defeat, Jaujard greeted the Nazi dignitaries from the Wehrmacht in a virtually empty museum–with only a handful of reproductions. All the originals were gone, every one removed a week before France entered the war on September 3, 1939.

First stored in the Château of Chambord (even today, there is no guidebook sold at the castle detailing this miraculous exploit), the works were later secretly dispersed at different locations according to meticulously organized plan that Jaujard had developed over the three previous years. When France was entirely occupied by the Germans after 1943, Jaujard managed to move the works again in the utmost secrecy. By then he had joined the Resistance and had established a loyal team of museum experts, curators and guards that did everything in its power to not only prevent the works from being stolen but also from becoming damaged by heat and humidity.

Thanks to his ties with assistant curator Rose Valland –cited in the book and movie “Monuments Men”--both worked together to spy on the Germans art thefts, keeping tracks of thousands of works stolen from Jewish collectors that would be recovered after the war. Still, she could not save everything and witnessed the worst public burning of masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse, Braque and other Modernist masters in the courtyard of the Jeu de Paume museum where she worked. To call this a Nazi Inquisition is an understatement.

While Jaujard could rely on a circle of trusted collaborators who worked at the Louvre, Versailles and provincial museums such as the Château de Valençay (the former home of Talleyrad), and the Musée d’Ingres at Montaubon, he also had to contend with such home-grown enemies as Abel Bonnard, the minister of education, who turned out to be a zealous collaborator who was only too eager to go along with the Germans’ pillage of French museums and private collections. The worst villains were Herman Goerring, who stole anything he could get his hands on for his own personal collection, and Alfred Rosenberg, appointed to steam art for the future museum Hitler dreamed of establishing in Linz, Austria.

The most intriguing aspect of Jaujard’s rescue of the Louvre is his relationship with the Count Franz Wolff-Metternich, head of the preservation of works of art in Paris. He understood the importance of preserving the Louvre’s collections for posterity, and ultimately chose to work against his hierarchy and even helped Jaujard to keep the artworks away from wartime bombing, as well as out of the hands of Goerring and Rosenberg.

At the war’s end, all the works of art were returned to the Louvre intact, and Jaujard’s mission is judged a total success. While he was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and convinced  Charles de Gaulle to give the Legion of Honor to Metternich, his time under André Malraux, France’s first minister of culture, was less than harmonious. After six years, Malraux summarily dismissed him, believing that France needed curators with a more open approach to modern art. Malraux cast a long shadow, and this may be why he (a former art thief) is in the Pantheon, and Jaujard until now has been one of France’s unsung heroes.