THE ARTFUL CONSPIRACY
by Ruth Minshull
Although the French people aren’t too popular with many Americans these days, perhaps you can agree that (like most of us) they’re not all bad all of the time.
The idea of conspiracies is capitivating to many folks (especially the loony ones). Some are convinced that the Kennedy assassination was the result of a conspiracy. Others, even today, still speculate about Lincoln’s death. And there are those who believe that the moon landing was a hoax cooked up by NASA. A few hard-core believers are certain that our government conspires to keep us from learning about the thousands of aliens who have invaded earth in space ships and are now running loose among us (disguised as famous sports luminaries with weird hair? or maybe all those skinny Hollywood blonds who look strangely alike?).
I’m sure there have been successful conspiracies, but for the most part I don’t buy into such theories. In the first place, a conspiracy requires that two or more people agree on a course of action. If you’ve ever been on a committee, you know how unlikely that is.
Furthermore, if a thicket of thieves did manage to cook up and pull off a successful caper, chances are good that sooner or later someone would tattle. Most people just can’t resist spilling the beans. Ben Franklin seemed to agree with this when he said, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
And, of course, a conspirator might give up his pals in a plea bargain. Contrary to proverbial wisdom, penal authorities often do not consider the bird in hand to be worth as much as the bird who is still hiding under a bush.
Perhaps the biggest reason for betrayal in this country today would be the golden opportunity to sell the story to the media for a small fortune (expecting, of course, to be portrayed on screen by Julia Roberts or Brad Pitt). That’s the American way.
Strictly speaking, a conspiracy consists of a group of people plotting together secretly to do a wrongful act. Usually this means the black-hearted ones trying to do in the righteous ones. Sometimes, however, the conspirators are the good guys, plotting to outwit the miscreants.
The scene is Paris, over 60 years ago. Several months before the start of World War II, European leaders were convinced that their negotiations would prevent war and lead to a lasting peace.
A number of realistic French people, however, were not so confident. On the small chance that there would be a war, they worried about the fate of all the priceless artwork in their beloved Louvre.
Looting has always been a common practice during wars. And the Nazis, of course, were no exception. Although it would be bad enough to get caught up in a war, the idea of losing the treasures of the Louvre was unthinkable to Frenchmen.
After fretting about it for a time, someone came up with the answer: They would take no chances; the art would be removed, and hidden until the war was over.
It was an exhaustive undertaking. Thousands of special crates had to be built. The Louvre had only one truck, so additional transport was borrowed from the Samaritaine, a nearby department store. Some 300,000 pieces had to be carefully packed, crated and moved. In what was surely the most massive art evacuation of all time, the industrious French patriots succeeded in emptying the huge museum.
Two days before war was declared, all the art in the Louvre had left Paris. The pieces were hidden all over France–in chateaux, in private homes, in caves, in cellars and in abandoned mines. In some cases, the conspirators were only a step ahead of the advancing German army.
Thus, when the inevitable day arrived and the Nazis came goose-stepping down the Champs-Elysées and into the Louvre, they found–to their great aston-ishment–nothing at all.
So successfully had everything been secreted away that all during the war and the occupation–while Herman Goering and his band of merciless pillagers were tracking down everything of artistic merit in Europe–not one piece from this enormous collection was found by the enemy.
When the war was over, the precious treasures of the Louvre were brought back home. Every single one of them.
Although the German occupation had been costly to the French people–thousands were executed, hundreds of thousands sent to Germany as slave laborers–no one gave away France’s great secret. Not one person sold out.
Thanks to the bravery and foresight of the French people, thanks to the triumph of the human spirit over oppression, and thanks to the success of one vast and glorious conspiracy, the world’s greatest collection of art treasures was preserved.
* * *
© 2009 by Ruth Minshull
1. The Louvre (video tape) “The Jarvis Collection,” 1978. NBC, Inc.
2. Bonfante-Warren, Alexander The Louvre/the Musee D’Orsay. 2000. Hugh Lauter Levin Associates