Rose Valland looked nondescript an ideal trait for a spy. Gray and unglamorous, with black-rimmed glasses that gave her a perpetual frown, she was virtually invisible to the Nazis who, in 1940, were using the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris as a depot for thousands of plundered art masterpieces on their way to Germany. While working in a menial maintenance job, Valland eavesdropped on her Nazi bosses as they catalogued looted Vermeers and Rembrandts, and shipped them off to the private collections of top Nazis. Choice pieces were earmarked for the grand Führermuseum, which Adolf Hitler planned but never built in Linz, Austria, near his birthplace. At night, Valland would record the details at home in secret diaries, and warn her comrades in the French Resistance so that Allied bombers would spare these treasure-laden trains bound for Germany.
It was largely through Valland's clandestine work that France was able to recover more than 100,000 works of art 60,000 immediately after the war, and 40,000 over the next decades and return them to their rightful owners. But some art slipped past Valland's gimlet eye; the Nazis amassed so much loot that they had to set up other clearing houses to process the flood of paintings and objects, many of which belonged to Jewish families killed in the Holocaust. Some of the art changed hands many times; Nazis collected and traded "degenerate" art Picasso and the Impressionists for earlier works they deemed more "Aryan."
This month, in Jerusalem, the Israel Museum features two new exhibitions that illuminate those dark days. "Looking for Owners" examines the sleuthing done by France to return artworks stolen during World War II to their owners, and shows 53 of the recovered paintings, while "Orphaned Art" presents 50 pieces of art that were looted from Holocaust victims and remain unclaimed. Both exhibitions, says James Snyder, director of the museum, are "about the same emotional subject loss, and the sadness over a lost way of life."
Few of the paintings are masterpieces, but the two exhibitions give a haunting glimpse of the collecting habits in European bourgeois homes before they were plundered by the Germans. Strolling through the gallery is like entering the drawing room of a wealthy merchant in prewar Vienna, with paintings of dreamy, Italianate landscapes and still lifes of tables piled with feathered game and fruit. You can almost hear the echoes of dinner gossip or a daughter's piano sonata lingering around these forlorn paintings.
The sense that these works each reflect the life of a missing owner is brought home in an antechamber where five computers enable visitors to look up the provenance of every item on display. The hope, says museum spokeswoman Dena Sher, is that a visitor might "lay legitimate claim to the work of art."
The Israel Museum also offers a sampling of 1,200 unclaimed items that are currently held by Israelis until the true heirs of Holocaust victims are found. "Looking for Owners" was put together with help from French museum authorities, whose contributions to the Jerusalem show came from their collection of 2,000 unclaimed pieces. Claims for these paintings must be registered with the French government as the Israeli parliament recently passed a resolution giving any artwork in a traveling exhibition immunity from seizure. Since the exhibitions opened on Feb. 18, no serious claimant has yet appeared for any of the French or Israeli works on display a reminder, perhaps, of how ruthlessly thorough the Nazis were in killing more than 6 million Jews. Up for grabs are canvases by Egon Schiele, Marc Chagall, Eugène Delacroix, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat.