Unpacking the Mona Lisa


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.


About The Author

Avatar of Sophia
Assistant Curator

Sophia joined the Retronaut team as a researcher in 2014. After graduating from Liverpool in 2013 with a BA in Ancient History, she moved to London and now works at Bletchley Park as a volunteer archivist. From test shots of Lauren Bacall to space suits for dogs, working for Retronaut means that Sophia can keep exploring the moments where history, culture and photography collide.

4 Responses

  1. Mike Withers

    I would really like to know where they hid the painting during the war. I would imagine it was quite sought after by the Nazis.

  2. Stratospheric

    When Northern France was occupied by the Nazis in 1940, the curator of the Louvre Museum, René Huyghe, kept the Mona Lisa under his bed in the château de Montal en Quercy (Lot region, Southwest of France). Then it was hidden in several anonymous houses and mansions in Lot before it was returned to the Louvre in July 1945.

  3. Sarah

    According to this article in the Boston Globe, the location of the Louvre’s famous pieces were not hidden from the Nazis. It said that

    “The principle was that the artwork had to be gotten away from combat zones and strategic centers,” said the exhibition’s curator, Guillaume Fonkenell, adding that the pieces weren’t hidden from the occupying Nazi forces.

    “The Germans were perfectly aware of the different places the artwork was being stored,” he said. Most of it was kept at chateaux, whose owners volunteered to safeguard the pieces as a way of preventing their properties from being requisitioned by the Nazis…”

    Interesting conflicting stories.



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