Saving Mona Lisa…and Other Great Works of Art
Surrounded by the stunning richly carved gilded walls and hand-painted ceiling of the grand salon at the France-Amériques, a large group of members of the organization listened to three illustrious panelists talk about the spoils of World War II — more specifically the art that was stolen by the Nazis and their restitution. It was 70 years to the day (May 26, 1944) that General Eisenhower issued an order outlining instructions for the protection of the historic monuments in war zones.
France-Amériques is an association founded in 1909 by Gabriel Hanotaux, a former Foreign Affairs Minister, “to alert opinion leaders, in the public and private sectors, to America’s global importance.” The Hôtel Le Marois in which it resides was built in 1863 under Napoléon III. The elegant room served as a perfect venue to learn more about what was the subject of George Clooney’s recent film, “The Monuments Men.” Inspired by the real people who saved these cultural treasures during World War II, the film was based on the book by Robert Edsel, the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art.
The panelists at the head table with their slide presentations included Thierry Bajou, Chief Heritage Curator of the Ministry of Culture and Communications, Gerri Chanel, New York professor and author of a book to be published in May, “Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures During World War II” and Thomas Morin-Williams, art historian and archivist of Impressionist and Modern Art at the auction house of Christie’s.
Gerri Chanel, the American on the panel, is a prize-winning freelance journalist and associate professor at York College of the City University of New York. She lived in France for five years, where she began the research for Saving Mona Lisa. “Throughout the German occupation of Paris, the Louvre’s staff fought to keep the priceless treasures out of the hands of Hitler and his henchmen and to keep the Louvre palace safe, many of them risking their jobs and their lives to protect the country’s artistic heritage. Saving Mona Lisa is the sweeping, suspenseful narrative of their battle.”
Gerri spoke in French about her experience researching and writing the book about this important and poignant subject. On her Web site, she explains:
“In late August 1939, as war loomed over Europe, curators at the Louvre nestled the world’s most famous painting into a special red velvet-lined case and spirited her away to the Loire Valley. Thus began the biggest evacuation of art and antiques in history. A small army of workers swiftly emptied the Louvre’s cavernous galleries of all but the most cumbersome and fragile pieces and tucked away the displaced treasures in the châteaux of the Loire countryside. As the Germans neared Paris in 1940, the French raced to move the masterpieces still further south, then again and again during the war, crisscrossing the southwest of France. At times, Mona Lisa slept at the bedside of curators who were painfully aware of their heavy responsibility. Throughout the German occupation, the Louvre’s staff fought to keep the priceless treasures out of the hands of Hitler and his henchmen and to keep the Louvre palace safe, many of them risking their jobs and their lives to protect the country’s artistic heritage. Saving Mona Lisa is the sweeping, suspenseful narrative of their battle.”
Shockingly, more than 20% of the art of Europe was looted by the Nazis. Much has now been recovered and restituted, however, as late as 1994, as many as 100,000 thousand works of art were still missing and had not been returned to their rightful owners. In 1997, various organizations established projects to recover the art: the National Jewish Museum and the World Jewish Congress. The National Archives at College Park has a substantial quantity of the records pertaining to Nazi looted art ranging from thousands of intelligence reports to over 12,000 still photographs accumulated by the Roberts Commission.
On July 8th, Gerri will be our guest speaker at Parler Paris Après Midi to speak about this important topic and her new book. Saving Mona Lisa can be ordered via our own Recommended Reading page or you can get a signed copy when you attend Après Midi. Don’t miss it!
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, INC
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