The transfer of the louvre’s collections in 1939

One of the craziest logistic operation in the history took place in 1939 in France, short before the beginning of the second world war and the entry of the germans soldiers in Paris. The architect of this operation was Jacques Jaujard, the director of the biggest museum in the world, Le Louvre, and had one goal in mind : preserving the art collections from the dangers of the war, what he already had done with the Museum del Prado during the civil war in Spain.

An empty wing of the Louvre in 1939

The operation was well planned , and 4000 of the main pieces were transfered to the Château de Chambord, at 160km from Paris. It was a strategic choice for this main warehouse : the castle was easy to defend, isolated from the bombing zones, and was located near to the others castels of the Loire where the pieces could be redistributed. In three months, 37 convois of 5 to 8 trucks were used, escorted by tank truck in case of a fire, and followed by hydrometric measuring device to ensure the good conservation of the art pieces.

The sculptures and the paintings weren’t easy to transport : some were rolled, others were kept in their frame, putted into special boxes. In three days, 200 trained employees of the museum and volunteers packed 4000 artpieces in 1862 boxes, what would take one year  to reinstall. The famous Winged Victory of Samothrace – 5m57 high, 30 tonnes of marble, was a logistic challenge in itself. The « Radeau de la méduse » – 4,91 m x 7,16 m couldn’t be rolled and was transported in a scenery truck from the Comédie-Française. In Versailles, the painting hook on the tramway’s catheter and provoked a big electricity breakdown.

The Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo prepared to be transported in 1939

Of course, all of this operation was kept secret. The pieces were identified by code names and stickers : red for a masterwork, yellow for a major one, green for the others. The Joconde, hidden in its box, had three red ones.

During the war, the collections moved south and were always preserved, thanks to the collaboration of civils, museum employees but also german officiers like Wolff-Metternich who putted the safety of the world’s heritage above everything else.

If you are interested, the spanish version of a great french documentary about it is accessible on youtube :

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