As one of the Louvre’s most valuable pieces of artwork, the protection of the Mona Lisa, the secrecy surrounding the various hiding places, and the success in which this was carried out was a triumph for the art world. The masterpiece was evacuated August 28, 1939 and on September 3, as the war had been declared, a decision was made to evacuate the rest of the most precious works by the end of the day to protect them from the imminent threat of bombing.
Châteaux, located in the serene French countryside, far away from strategic targets were the chosen hiding places for much of the Louvre’s art work. The Mona Lisa was first moved to the Château de Chambord in the Loire valley, then Louvingny, the Abbaye de Loc Dieu, followed by the Musée de Montauban and finally to Montal to join the Louvre’s other paintings. The photo shows the tentative unwrapping of the Mona Lisa after its return to the Louvre following the Liberation.
The continuous moving of the Mona Lisa stopped it from becoming part of the cultural looting that took place under the Nazi regime. The pillaging that took place was systematic; specific organisations were set up with the sole purpose to determine which public and private collections of art were most valuable to the Nazi Party.
After the outbreak of war in September 1939 the majority of the Louvre’s collections were evacuated, with the exception of the heaviest pieces, which were protected by sandbags. Sculptures, decorative wares, and 3,690 paintings were stowed away in several-hundred crates before setting out on their journey. This momentous logistical feat was supervised by Jacques Jaujard, the director of the Musées de France at the time.
In an attempt to restore Paris to its cultural heights during the occupation the Nazi Party ordered the gallery to be reopened in September 1940. However, it was only a symbolic gesture as the Louvre was a mere shadow of its former self and the remaining art work available to view, predictably, were only those pieces judged culturally acceptable by the Nazi regime.
According to the Louvre website, the plundered art wares of private collections belonging to prominent Jewish families and art dealers were stored in the galleries devoted to Near Eastern antiquities. This area was requisitioned by the Nazis and deemed inaccessible to museum personnel; this became known as the ‘Louvre Sequestration’. The stolen pieces were wrapped and catalogued ready for their journey to the Third Reich. After the Nazis seized the Jeu de Paume, which would be used as a further storehouse of looted art work, the ‘Louvre Sequestration’ continued. The constant to-and-fro of art work between the museums meant that Jacques Juajard was unable to prevent the transport of stolen art wares to Germany.