In 1940, France suffered defeat at the hands of the German army. Hitler came to Paris, and his envy of French heritage is no secret. Yet when the Nazis entered the Louvre Museum, they found nothing but empty rooms. Jacques Jaujard had already secretly removed almost 4,000 works to protect them and keep them away from armed conflict.
Nazi Germany had a department dedicated to looting the assets of the countries it defeated. A special task force (the ERR) was responsible for plundering works of art for Germany, confiscating them as treasuries of war. So museums were emptied and collectors plundered. To avoid this happening at the Louvre, Jacques Jaujard, then Director of National Museums, made a getaway plan for the collections of the Royal Palace. Prepared well in advance, he strategically organized for the works to disappear, even the most monumental ones, so that they could evade the German authorities and those of the Vichy government then in place. His experience of evacuating the Prado Museum during the Spanish Civil War and taking its collections to Switzerland gave him a head start over the Nazis. Jacques Jaujard’s talents lay in the diplomacy he showed. He managed not only to protect the works of the Louvre using accomplices, but he duped the French government even though he was a civil servant. The secret was well kept and when the German army surrendered, the museum's treasures were able to return home.
It is almost impossible to imagine moving the 4,000 pieces in the Louvre in secret. Some were of colossal size, while others weighed tons. And it was out of the question to destroy the fragile objects or rip a canvas. It wasn’t done overnight. In actual fact, it took several years for the works to be dispersed throughout France. Most were kept at the Château de Chambord in the Loire valley.
The story of the rescue of the Louvre Museum’s collections has long been a mystery. Jacques Jaujard remained discrete about how the operation was organized, despite the success and the decisive role he played for the country.
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