At our final talk of 2021, with an audience of 100, Judge Arthur Tomkins presented mystery, intrigue and surprises in his art crime lecture about Rose Valland. Appealing to the art historian within me, I was captivated by the story of French Art Historian Rose Valland, heroine of the French Resistance and of the fight against art crime during war. When the Germans invaded France and occupied Paris, Valland was working as an assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume Gallery next to the Louvre Museum. Fearless, determined and resolute, the young Valland worked undercover alongside the Nazis who, on Hitler’s orders, set about looting, plundering and stealing French, European and artworks taken from Jewish collectors, artists and art merchants for their own selfish aims.

For three years, Valland tirelessly and methodically catalogued details in her secret notebooks of thousands of pieces of art and noted the destinations of each artwork which were carried away across Europe by the crateload on trains for safekeeping by the Nazis. At great personal risk, she passed this invaluable information to the French Resistance who she worked alongside. Little did the German forces know that the native French-born was fluent in German and they had a spy in their midst. The tips Valland gleaned from eavesdropping into conversations provided her with valuable information she imparted to the French Resistance. This information saved trains laden with plundered artworks from being bombed enroute to their various safekeeping sites and later helped to locate thousands of artworks.

Who would think that artworks now displayed in famed galleries across Europe were once stolen and temporarily deposited for safekeeping in lofty Bavarian castles and in the labyrinths of underground salt mines? The largest treasure trove of looted art was found in an extensive complex of salt mines in Altaussee, Austria. This salt mine served as a huge repository for Nazi stolen art including famed works such as Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Art of Painting and Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges sculpture, amongst thousands of other treasures found stashed here, far away from the galleries and churches in Europe from where they had been stolen. Some of these works were to be focal points at Hitler’s unrealised dream of creating a world-class art museum in his hometown of Linz. I admired Vermeer’s The Astronomer up close on a visit to the Louvre a few years ago and The Art of Painting, one of my favourite paintings, at the Vienna KHM Fine Arts Museum, never realising their provenance and infamous history.

Although 150,000 artworks are still unaccounted for, Valland’s efforts in providing information regarding the whereabouts of stolen art subsequently provided to the Allies and her efforts after the war, were instrumental in the recovery and return of thousands of plundered artworks to their rightful owners. Artworks which were otherwise destined for destruction, theft and permanent loss from the pages of art history. The process of restitution is still going on today. Unsurprisingly, this remarkable woman who dedicated her career to singlehandedly saving valuable art treasures is the most-decorated woman in French history. A commemorative plaque outside Jeu de Paume in Paris is testament to her significant mark on history and the artworld. More about this fascinating woman and period in history can be seen in the film The Monuments Men, Valland’s autobiography Le Front de L’Art or read Judge Tompkin’s book Plundering Beauty: A history of Art Crime during War (Lund Humphries, London, 2018).

Thank you Arthur for another fascinating talk richly illustrated with photos and video clips which really brought it to life.

Susanne Lang, Member

Image: S. Lang