SML cover high res 2Excerpts from Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre & its Treasures During World War II, by Gerri Chanel. © 2014 Gerri Chanel. Reprinted courtesy of Heliopa Press. All rights reserved.

In late summer 1939, just days before France declared war against Germany, the Louvre staff conducted the largest museum evacuation in history in record time, then managed to keep its art and antiquities out of the hand of Nazi occupiers throughout the years of occupation that followed.

The Mona Lisa was moved six times during the war, traveling in a custom-made red-velvet lined case. The museum’s other treasures also moved from countryside chateau to chateau, where curators and guards who risked their jobs and lives to keep the art and antiquities safe looked after them after. Due to their heroic efforts over the course of the war, the Louvre and its evacuated art miraculously survived not only the appetites of Hitler and his henchmen—often supported by the complicit Vichy government—but also gunfire, shells, bombs, and damage from a crashed plane.

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre & its Treasures During World War II by Gerri Chanel is an engaging and suspenseful book that also describes the connections between the museum and its curators to other wartime developments in France. Superbly researched and accompanied by riveting photographs of the period, Saving Mona Lisa is a compelling true story of art and beauty, intrigue and ingenuity, and remarkable moral courage in the face of one of the most fearful enemies in history. Author Gerri Chanel provides new insights and narrative, images and new research, and tells how the Louvre’s staff accomplished these monumental feats in Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures During World War II (2014, Heliopa Press). To purchase Saving Mona Lisa, visit: (

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Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre & its treasures During World War II

“Above all, France was obliged to save the spiritual values it held as an integral part of its soul and its culture. To put its artworks, its archives and its libraries out of harm’s way was indeed one of our country’s first reflexes of defense.” —Rose Valland, Le Front de l’Art

Excerpt: Gerri Chanel’s “Saving Mona Lisa” keeping a close eye on the whereabouts of the Louvre’s treasured ‘Diana’ (part two), published on A Woman’s Paris®.

Interview: French Impressions: Gerri Chanel’s “Saving Mona Lisa” thus began the biggest evacuation of art and antiquities in history, published on A Woman’s Paris®.

Part III: Exodus, Art and Occupiers (Spring 1940 to Fall 1942) 

Chapter Eleven: Debacle

Under the terms of the armistice, France was split into two zones, one governed by the Germans and the other controlled by Pétain’s government, nicknamed “Vichy” after the town in which the government was based. It was called the “free zone” although many of the measures Vichy would take were harsher than the Nazis’. The German occupied zone included roughly the northern half of the country plus a western area tapering to a point as it went south toward the Spanish border. The shape was not an accident: it gave the Germans control of the Channel and Atlantic coasts, most of the largest cities in France and some of the richest agricultural lands. The “free” zone included many of the poorest, most rugged and least populated parts of the country. Under the armistice, Germany also annexed Alsace and Lorraine, both of which shared borders with Germany and had long been a subject of dispute between the two countries. The Franco-Italian armistice signed several days later annexed several small areas in far southeast France to Italy.

Some of the Louvre’s depots resided within the free zone, including Saint-Blancard, Loc-Dieu—the Louvre’s new primary depot for paintings other than the very large ones—and, just barely, Valençay, which lay only nine miles south of the demarcation line. But because the June evacuations could not move everything south, some of the Louvre depots fell within the occupied zone, including Courtalain, Sourches, Cheverny and several others that held items from other museums and private collections. Chambord, the largest depot of all, was also in the occupied zone.

The Musées Nationaux had tucked away their artistic treasures in châteaux to protect them from bombing, not to hide them from Germans, though they had tried to keep as low a profile as possible regarding depot locations. But even if museum officials had wished to keep the locations hidden, it would have been a vain effort; within days after the Germans occupied Paris, the German military had already assembled numerous reports noting the depots they had discovered and plans for their “protection.”

Where did the information about the depot locations come from? The Germans could have learned about Chambord simply from reading newspaper reports from 1939. Additionally, immediately upon their arrival in Paris, the Germans had combed through French government archives, which held copies of detailed reports of many of the evacuation plans and actions. Moreover, when the Germans arrived in the city, one of their first stops was the Louvre itself. They roamed the cavernous building with their boots echoing off the ancient stone steps, stupefied that the museum had been emptied. There, too, they obtained information. Neither Gabriel Rouchès nor the guard on duty, the two men sent from Chambord to guard the museum, would have been in a position to withhold information while facing German machine guns.

On June 19—five days before the armistice went into effect—Nazi troops arrived at Chambord. Jacques Jaujard was there to greet them. “You are, monsieur le Directeur,” they said, “the first senior French public official we have found on duty.”

The German military immediately stationed soldiers at Chambord and the other depots in the occupied zone. Was it to protect the collections from damage, as required by the Hague Convention—or to keep a close eye on them for their own purposes? The answer seemed to lie in a June 30 communiqué to the German commander of Paris from Wilhelm Keitel, German Field Marshal and head of the Supreme Command arm of the German military. Issued a mere eight days after the armistice, it contained an order from Hitler to take into custody privately-held, “primarily Jewish-owned” valuable art and antiquities—plus the “French state-owned art treasures.” It seemed the Germans were about to grab the entire artistic heritage of France.

Praise for Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures During World War II

“…[W] ill prove to be a monument to courage. Especially recommended to the attention of non-specialist general readers with an interest in World War II history and true tales of extraordinary heroism, “Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and its Treasures During World War II” should be considered an essential, core addition to academic library 20th Century European History collections.” — Midwest Book Review

“… [A] thoroughly detailed account of this intriguing chapter in French history. Rather than aggrandizing an already extraordinary story, her narration of the Mona Lisa’s miraculous survival – in the face of Hitler’s henchmen, heavy bombardment and the complicit Vichy government – lets the facts speak for themselves and they’re all the more compelling for it.” — France Monthly

“The book is a must-have for anyone interested in history, art or war.” — Adrian Leeds, Parler Paris Après-Midi, Adrian Leeds Group

GChanel_hrGerri Chanel is a prize-winning freelance journalist, professor at the City University of New York and a former business consultant. She lived in Paris for five years, where, in addition to writing and teaching, she also held wine and cheese tastings for tourists that were rated among the top Paris attractions on TripAdvisor. While in France, Gerri also began the research for her book, Saving Mona Lisa. As part of her research for the book, she combed through various French archives and had access to the few remaining living witnesses of the events. Gerri now divides her time between New York and Paris. For more information, visit: (

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 – Excerpt from Ronald C. Rosbottom’s “When Paris Went Dark” (Part One). June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and deserted Paris and The City of Light was occupied by the Third Reich for the next four years. Rosbottom illuminates the unforgettable history of both the important and minor challenges of day-to-day life under Nazi occupation, and of the myriad forms of resistance that took shape during that period. August 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, perfect timing for Ronald C. Rosbottom’s riveting history of the period. (Interview with Ronald C. Rosbottom on A Woman’s Paris)

Tilar J. Mazzeo’s “The Hotel on Place Vendôme” – Hôtel Ritz in Paris: June 1940 (excerpt). Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of the New York Times bestseller The Widow Clicquot, and The Secret of Chanel No. 5. This riveting account uncovers the remarkable experiences of those who lived in the hotel during the German occupation of Paris, revealing how what happened in the Ritz’s corridors, palatial suites, and basement kitchens shaped the fate of those who met there by chance or assignation, the future of France, and the course of history. (Interview with Tilar J. Masseo on A Woman’s Paris)

French Impressions: W. Scott Haine on the origins of Simone de Beauvoir’s café life and the entry of France into WWII (Part one). “Café archives” seldom exist in any archive or museum, and library subject catalogs skim the surface. Scott Haine, who is part of a generation that is the first to explore systematically the social life of cafés and drinking establishments, takes us from the study of 18th century Parisian working class taverns to modern day cafés. A rich field because the café has for so long been so integral to French life.

Proud, Sad and Angry: Normandy still stirs the emotions, by Alan Davidge. We can all be forgiven for thinking that history is all about dates and facts, although it is true that a day spent exploring the Normandy beaches will certainly add many of these to our memory banks. The real memories that we take away from Normandy, however, are the kind that go much deeper and touch parts of our soul, ensuring that we are never quite the same again.

Text copyright ©2015 Gerri Chanel. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.