One of the star attractions at the Louvre museum in Paris is unquestionably the “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. Purchased from da Vinci’s estate the 16th century by France’s King Francis I, its home has been the Louvre since 1797.
What you may not know is that it has been moved for its own protection during times of war and most often during World War II.
On August 28, 1939, six days before France declared war with Germany, the “Mona Lisa,” along with over 3000 other works, was evacuated to a chateau in the Loire valley and then several more times before the war was over.
Some high officials of the Third Reich, and Hitler in particular, were art connoisseurs. Hitler intended to “acquire” all of the best artworks from Europe and put them in what he considered to be his magnum opus, the planned Führer Museum in Austria.
A nearly empty Louvre reopened to the public during the German occupation in 1940. It was mainly used by the Nazis (along with the nearby Galerie Nationale du Jeau De Paume museum) as a clearinghouse for artworks they stole from museums, collectors and prominent Jewish families. Referred to as the Louvre Sequestration, the Germans blocked off the Near Eastern antiquities galleries from the regular Louvre staff and essentially had secret showings where Hermann Gorring and Hitler, among others, would come to select the works of art they wanted for themselves.
After the war, the hidden Louvre artworks were returned along with many others that were recovered from Nazi hiding places. Countless were unclaimed since they once belonged to people whose entire families had perished in concentration camps.
Many of these unclaimed pieces were auctioned off to collectors and museums but over a 1000 can be found in the Louvre today. These works are distinguished by three letters in their identification text: MNR, for Musées Nationaux Récupération, France’s anonymous painting collection.
Other World War II-Related Museums
Originally built as a tennis center in the 19th century, it’s now a museum for modern photography and video arts.
During the war it was used by the Nazi ERR as a repository for stolen art. What makes this museum remarkable was its brave curator, Rose Valland, who secretly recorded whatever details she could about the 20, 000 artworks that passed through its doors.
After the war her labors were vital to the recovery efforts. As a member of the Commission for the Recovery of Works of Art, she, and the Monuments Men (a character loosely based on her was played by Cate Blanchett in the George Clooney film) worked tirelessly to reunify works of art with their rightful owners.
This museum house did not fall into the clutches of the Nazis because it was donated by its owner, Count Moise de Camondo, a Jewish banker, to Les Arts Decoratifs museum after his death just a few years before the war. The house appears almost as if the family had just left to go out for the day and exemplifies the kind of prominent homes that were looted by the Nazis.