May 25, 2020

On 24 August 1939, the day after the Soviet foreign minister Molotov and his German counterpart von Ribbentrop signed the pact that gave Hitler free rein to attack the West, the Louvre director, Jacques Jaujard, ordered the museum to be closed for three days. Officially, for repair. In fact, for three days and three nights, 200 Louvre staff, students from the museum’s art school and employees from La Samaritaine, the  grand magasin, carefully placed 4,000 world treasures in wooden cases.

Luckily, The Wedding at Cana by Veronese could be rolled around a cylinder. So could Jacques-Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon. But Delacroix’s Crusaders, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa and all the Rubenses were too fragile and had to be hauled away on a special open truck made to transport the set designs and murals of France’s state theatre company, the Comédie Française. The Raft of the Medusa, weighing nearly one and a half tons, stood in the open-air truck covered only by a giant blanket.

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Masterpieces were categorised in order of importance: a yellow circle for very valuable ones, a green circle for major artworks and a red circle for world treasures. The white case containing the Mona Lisa was marked with three red circles. In a letter to the curator who was in charge of travelling with the painting also known in France as La Joconde — and who did not yet know the full burden of his responsibility — Jaujard broke the news by telling him: “Old friend, your convoy will be made of eight trucks. I have to tell you that the Chenu truck which will be departing from 5 rue de la Terrasse, with the plate number 2162RM2, contains a case with the letters MN written in black. It is the Mona Lisa.” Leonardo da Vinci’s finest work was travelling in an ambulance specially fitted with elastic-rubber-sprung suspension.

A convoy of 203 vehicles transporting 1,862 wooden cases set out one morning in late August to eleven castles in France — where they would wait, anonymous and secure, for what would come. Grand châteaux on the Loire, such as Chambord and Cheverny, were used, but Jaujard also requisitioned more inconspicuous and privately-owned estates conveniently ‘lost’ in the French countryside, far from any strategic locations. Every convoy had a curator and staff attached to it. Their mission: to look after the art collections in their new homes for as long as was necessary. Whole families were displaced and relocated. For those dedicated museum employees, it was an adventure that would last more than five years.

Did they ever ask themselves what the world treasures they were guarding with their lives were worth? The most expensive painting ever sold at auction, Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, was bought for $450 million in 2017. What would the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, be worth if France sold it? A rhetorical question? Not for French tech entrepreneur Stéphane Distinguin who estimates its value at €50 billion (£44.7 billion) and thinks the French State should sell it to fund post-Covid recovery. His thinking is as simplistic as his maths:

“As an entrepreneur and a taxpayer, I know that all the billions spent in the covid crisis are real and will necessarily cost us. An obvious idea is to sell off a valuable asset at the highest price possible, but one that is the least critical as possible to our future.”

Mr Distinguin is wrong on two counts. Even if sold for €50 billion, the Mona Lisa would offer only a brief financial respite from France’s huge post-Covid public debt. It would certainly not cover all the losses. Besides, to say that the Mona Lisa serves little purpose in our future is to be blind to the ageless, universal and immaterial quality of art.

This doesn’t mean of course that artists or cultural institutions can’t support war or pandemic efforts. After Albert Uderzo, co-creator of Asterix, died in March, his widow announced she would auction five original drawings estimated at €100,000 (£90,000) each to support health caregivers and French hospitals. The sale will be held in Paris on 26 May.

Likewise, the Mobilier National, the office responsible for furnishing official buildings in France, which owns 130,000 precious rugs, ceramics, desks, chairs, chandeliers, said it would hold an auction on 20 and 21 September. For sale will be 100 art objects dating back to the 19th century — and of little heritage and historical value. All the proceeds will contribute to the national effort to support hospitals.

Those initiatives should be encouraged. However, to suggest that France should do away with its most precious and totemic possessions, simply because they are worth billions and could stopper a financial hole, is a step too far.

The Mona Lisa tells stories that keep people warm in moments of crisis or during national catastrophes. Its sheer existence — the fact it has survived hundreds of years of wars and tumult — helps us live through tough or strange times. It is not just a work of great beauty and a masterpiece from history’s most celebrated artist, it is also an inspiration. In fact, in the national imagination, certain inanimate objects such as the Mona Lisa take a life of their own. They are family.

The French take pride in knowing that it was a French King, François I — an artistic visionary and an intrepid young sovereign — who saw genius in Leonardo da Vinci. At the time, the Pope had abandoned the artist, and everybody in Florence was looking down on Da Vinci. France, a great patron of the arts, gave the old Leonardo a grandiose shelter to freely create in the 1510s, until his death in 1519.

When I started writing my book Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950, I knew I had to start with the Mona Lisa, and how she escaped from the hands of the Nazis thanks to the brave and visionary Louvre director.

The Louvre finally reopened to the public on 10 July 1945. Its first post-war exhibition was called, simply, ‘Great Masterpieces’. Its collections repatriated from their hiding places, the French public realised that not one piece had been damaged, thanks to their saviour-in-chief, Jacques Jaujard, and the thousand anonymous keepers defended them. This was an emotional reunion.

So, too, had been the return of a well-wrapped-up acquaintance three weeks earlier. The photographer Pierre Jahan had been allowed to take pictures of a moment that would immediately travel the world and make headlines: the opening of a white poplar case marked with three red dots. Waterproof layers of protection were carefully removed, one by one, until the last one, a thin sheet of fire-retardant fabric woven from asbestos fibres, appeared. It was then torn open, revealing the face of the Mona Lisa. She had come home, finally.

When the Louvre, the most visited museum in the world, reopens after Covid-19 is tamed at last — hopefully not in six years time as during the Second World War — many French visitors will no doubt feel emotional too. Those emotions are part of a nation’s history. They are priceless.