By: Victoria Yates
Rose Antonia Maria Valland was born on the 1st of November 1898 in Saint-Étienne-de-Saint-Geoirs, in Isère. The daughter of a blacksmith, she received a scholarship to a teacher school graduating in 1918. She planned to be an art teacher and studied art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Lyon. After graduating at the top of the class in a competitive teacher training exam, Valland went on to further training at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris.
Although she worked for a time as a drawing teacher in a high school, Valland soon returned to education. She earned art history degrees from both the Ecole du Louvre and the Sorbonne University of Paris. When she graduated in 1931 Valland was already undertaking graduate studies at the Collège de France.
Despite all her education, Valland began her new career in 1932 as a volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum. She only became a paid member of staff in 1941 during the German occupation when she was named as the museum’s overseer.
Throughout World War II, the Nazis systematically looted artwork from museums and private collections, particularly those of Jewish collectors, in occupied countries. Since 1940, the Jeu de Paume had served as the headquarters for the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). The museum was the central storage and sorting depot, pieces gathered there would then be distributed to different locations in Germany.
From her privileged position, Valland began to quietly record information on the vast number of pieces that came through the museum. She kept a low profile, aided by the fact that the Germans didn’t realise she spoke German, and built on the intelligence she gathered by obtaining information from guards, drivers, and packers. But it was still highly dangerous work.
For four years, Valland risked her life collecting details on the looting and movement of pieces, passing on relevant details to the French Resistance. Painstakingly, she compiled a staggering amount of information, including witnessing the visits of many high-ranking Nazi officials, including Hermann Göring who visited to select paintings for his private collection.
After the Allied invasion in June 1944, Valland eventually passed her collected intelligence to James Rorimer, one of the Monuments Men. The details proved invaluable at speeding up the restitution process and helping to catalogue the found artefacts. She would eventually write about her experiences during the war in her book ‘Le front de l’art.’
When the war ended, Valland continued to help in the effort. She was one of the founding members of the Commission on Art Recovery, and continued to work on locating and returning stolen artworks. Valland also served for a time as a conservator of the French Musees Nationaux and, in 1954, was appointed as chair of the Commission for the Protection of Works of Art.
Although she retired in 1968, Valland continued to work on restitution cases for the national archives.
Her bravery and dedication to the cause earned her accolades from within and beyond the French borders and has made her one of the most decorated women in France.
The French government awarded her the Legion of Honour and the Medal of the Resistance as well making her Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. In 1948 she was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States, and she was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Despite this, Valland died in 1980 in relative anonymity.
Her extraordinary story was brought to Hollywood first in 1964 with The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, and more recently as the inspiration behind Claire Simone in The Monuments Men. In these depictions her exceptional courage and unwavering mission have continued to live on in the public consciousness, but her legacy reaches far beyond those portrayals as a leader in the French Resistance and the restitution of stolen art across Europe.