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.

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

“There are fights that you may lose without losing your honor; what makes you lose your honor is not to fight.” —Jacques Jaujard, Feuilles

Excerpt: Gerri Chanel’s “Saving Mona Lisa” on the battle to protect the artistic heritage of France during World War II (part one), 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 Sixteen: Montauban, 1941

Before long, it occurred to the Germans that they might also try exchanges as a ploy to get specific items particularly pleasing to their tastes. Hitler’s foreign minister Ribbentrop, for one, had long had his eye on Diana Leaving Her Bath, one of the Louvre’s most prized paintings by Boucher. Even before the war, during a December 1938 trip to France, Ribbentrop had twice visited the eighteenth-century masterpiece at the Louvre, lingering long in front of her. By the fall of 1940, he had already made it known that he wanted the painting by any means. It would not be so easy to do after having been toppled as head pillager by Rosenberg, but he waited patiently for an opportune moment.

In March 1941, perhaps inspired by the way Spain had obtained the Murillo, that moment came. Ribbentrop asked Abetz to try to obtain the painting. Abetz, in turn, sent his emissary Karl Epting to see Jaujard with a message: the Germans wished to exchange the Boucher for an acceptable work in the German collections. What could be done? Epting asked. Jaujard sent a memo to Louis Hautecœur, informing him of Epting’s request and asking what paintings might serve as appropriate options for an exchange. But he also questioned the principle of an exchange itself, given the requesting party.

Abetz, perhaps inspired by the helpful role the Vichy government had played in the exchange of the Murillo, bypassed Jaujard and instead contacted Admiral François Darlan, Pétain’s most trusted associate. What could be done? Abetz asked. Darlan, in turn, went to see Jérôme Carcopino, the Minister of National Education, explaining that an exchange of the Boucher might perhaps lead to the release of several thousand French prisoners of war. Darlan told Carcopino that he had noticed that Ribbentrop was “madly in love” with the nude Diana’s thighs and he wanted to make Ribbentrop’s “dream come true.” “Get the painting to Berlin,” ordered Darlan.

Epting had not offered a particular work in exchange for the Boucher. Rather, he had simply indicated, by way of example, that it could come from the Germans’ French impressionist collections, leading the French to suspect that they intended to offer a painting the ERR had looted from French Jews. Jaujard had no choice but to begin negotiations for an exchange, though he and other museum officials dragged their feet with respect to identifying an acceptable painting to receive in the exchange. On April 24, 1941, after several weeks had passed without the identification of an equivalent painting, Darlan issued an order to return the Boucher from Montauban to Paris. Less than a week later, the painting was in Berlin. Not long afterwards, Hautecœur happened to see Darlan, who mentioned the painting. “What do you expect?” he told Hautecœur. “Ribbentrop wanted the nymphs for his birthday . . . Don’t be annoyed over so little, he’ll give you another bad painting in its place.”

However, the exchange would not be considered final until the French agreed to an acceptable trade. The French finally said the Impressionists were already well represented in the Louvre’s collections and that only a painting of the same period and value as the Boucher would be acceptable. They then narrowed it down to a work by Watteau, correctly assuming the German museum holding it would refuse to give it up. By August, Ribbentrop had no choice but to return the Boucher to Paris. Diana would remain at the Louvre until the following spring, when Jaujard would discreetly send it to a depot at the château de Sourches. Ribbentrop had not given up hope, however, ordering Abetz to keep searching for an acceptable German painting to trade and to keep a close eye on the whereabouts of Diana.

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

“[A]n original work of scholarship that grips the reader with stories of French bureaucrats tying up…Nazi art looting efforts in administrative red tape. Any reader who has run into the famous French intransigence will laugh at Louvre Museum Director Jacques Jaujard’s creative ways of thwarting a rogue’s gallery of Nazis as he careens around France with masterworks tied to unsteady trucks… Let’s hope that Hollywood and history pay attention to Saving Mona Lisa, where the truth is more entertaining than fiction!” —Attorney Raymond Dowd, art law and litigation, WWII art restitution claims

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 Susan Winkler’s “Portrait of a Woman in White” — a story of love and loss (excerpt). The eccentric Rosenswig-Assouline family is immersed in a belle-époque lifestyle filled with art and antiques in their splendid château, Le Paradis. As their fortunes fall, the family scrambles to do what they must to survive while trying to adapt to the emotional devastation of the Occupation of Paris during World War II. The search for lost family, lost love and lost art was inspired by the author’s family history, while the Rosenswig family is fictitious, other key players and events include the historic, from Henri Matisse and Hermann Göring to French museum spy Rose Valland. (Interview with Susan Winkler on A Woman’s Paris)

French Impressions: Barbara Will on Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the intellectual life during wartime France (Part one). From 1941 to 1943, Jewish American writer and avant-garde icon Gertrude Stein translated for an American audience thirty-two speeches in which Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of state for the collaborationist Vichy government, outlined the Vichy policy barring Jews and other “foreign elements” from the public sphere while calling for France to reconcile with its Nazi occupiers. In her book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, Barbara Will outlines the formative powers of this relationship, treating their interaction as a case study of intellectual life during wartime France. 

French Impressions: Dr. Alan T. Marty on the dark history of the City of Light. Alan T. Marty, MD, armed with an historically-informed exploratory spirit, has often encountered Paris’ endless capacity to evoke a mood, to surprise with similar absent/present paradoxes, as detailed in his A Walking Guide to Occupied Paris: The Germans and Their Collaborators, a book-in-progress. His work has been acknowledged in Paris dans le Collaboration by Cecile Desprairies, Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War; and referenced in Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark, and in an upcoming book about Occupied Paris by Tilar Mazzeo. 

Anne Morgan’s war: American Women Rebuilding France, 1917-1924. Anne Morgan, daughter of the prominent financier J.Pierpont Morgan, and the 350 American Women—all volunteers—left comfortable lives in the United States to devote themselves to humanitarian aid in France; an account from the exhibition of photographs and silent films from the Franco-American Museum in Picardy, France. Château de Blérancourt, in Picardy, France was created by Anne Morgan and is today a national French museum devoted of friendship and collaboration between the United States and France. (Interview with Elaine Uzan Leary on A Woman’s Paris)

Normandy never forgets: WWII monuments and memorials in France (part one), by Alan Davidge, D-Day historian for tours in Normandy. Alan shares a number of places of significance and remembrance. Guides included.

D-Day Travel Guide: For American visitors to Normandy, France, by Alan Davidge, D-Day tours historian, Normandy. Alan has managed to seek out a number of places of significance that do not usually feature in guidebooks. Guides included. 

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