A French documentary has revealed a forgotten national hero who help protect some of the country’s most valued art pieces from Nazi looters. The documentary is called 'Illustre et Inconnu' (Illustrious Yet Unknown). It was released last month and highlights the heroic work of Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the Louvre museum in Paris during World War II, the Times reports.

Jacques Jaujard, the deputy head of the Louvre in Paris during World War II.

Mixing archive footage with animation, and narrated by French actor Mathieu Amalric, creators Jean-Pierre Devillers and Pierre Pochart tell the story of a top-secret operation that started ten days before World War II: Jaujard, with the help of hundreds of loyal employees from across France, on his own initiative, hid all the museum’s artistic treasures without receiving orders from the French government. His impressive act was based on intuition. Jaujard, a committed art lover, hid all of the world-renowned museum’s contents, including Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa, The Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Jaujard’s team managed to hide the artworks in castles and abbeys in central and southern France. They were catalogued according to their importance, then put in crates to ship away. According to the documentary, the artworks were put in 1,862 wooden crates and a total of 203 vehicles such as cars, taxis, trucks and ambulances were used to carry the priceless cargo to their hiding places. The Winged Victory of Samothrace was the last masterpiece to be taken away. The operation was completed the day the Nazis invaded Poland, starting World War II.

On 25 August 1939, Jaujard closed the Louvre for three days, officially for repair work. For three days and nights, hundreds of staff, art students and employees of the Grands Magasins du Louvre department store carefully placed treasures in white wooden cases. Luckily, The Wedding at Cana by Veronese could be rolled around a cylinder. However, Géricault’s vast The Raft of the Medusa had to be hauled on to an open truck and covered by a giant blanket.

Masterpieces were categorised in order of importance: a yellow circle for very valuable art pieces, green for major works and red for world treasures. The white case containing the Mona Lisa was marked with three red circles.

Private cars, ambulances, trucks, delivery vans and taxis were requisitioned. A convoy of 203 vehicles transporting 1,862 wooden cases set out one August morning to hundreds of inconspicuous castles in France where they could lie, anonymous and secure. The 11ft-high Winged Victory of Samothrace was the last piece to go into hiding, on the day Germany invaded Poland.

Rose Valland, one of Jaujard’s employees, secretly recorded every single painting looted by the Nazis from private collections during the war, and helped to repatriate 45,000 of them after 1945. The French were reminded of her role when she was portrayed by Cate Blanchett in George Clooney’s film The Monuments Men. However, few had heard of Jaujard, so when Illustre et Inconnu was broadcast on the TV channel France 3, the nation’s jaws dropped in disbelief.