When Napoleon came to power he had the complex renamed in his honor, and soon the Musée Napoleon was overflowing with the artistic spoils of war as Bonaparte’s Grand Army swept across the continent. Among the cultural artifacts that made their way to Paris were hundreds of paintings and sculptures, including a set of antique bronze horses from the façade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice that became part of a triumphal arch outside the Louvre and another equine statue that had stood atop Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. Napoleon had the statue, known as the “Quadriga,” packed up and sent to France for display in the Louvre, but it instead languished in storage until Napoleon’s fall in 1814, after which more than 5,000 pieces of art were returned to their rightful owners and Paris’ grandest museum got its current name.
The Louvre became a clearinghouse for artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
One hundred and thirty years later, as another grand army swept across Europe (this time in the direction of France), conservators at the Louvre began to hastily prepare for the evacuation of tens of thousands of pieces of art. The first to go: The Mona Lisa, followed quickly by every valuable (or moveable) work. A caravan of more than three dozen trucks headed into the French countryside, shepherding the priceless works to safety in a series of private chateaus. After the German occupation of Paris, Nazi officials ordered the Louvre to reopen. It was an empty gesture, literally: The barren walls and ghostly corridors were now home only to those sculptures that had been too difficult to move (and even those that remained had been covered up by heavy burlap bags).
With no artwork to display, the Nazis decided to commandeer part of the museum as a clearinghouse to catalogue, package and ship art and personal items confiscated from wealthy French (primarily Jewish) families back to Germany. Known as the Louvre sequestration, it eventually took over six massive rooms in the museum, but it wasn’t the largest art theft operation in Paris during World War II. Under the command of Herman Goering, the nearby Jeu de Paume museum processed thousands of confiscated masterpieces. Many of them were earmarked for the personal collections of the Nazi high command, while those works deemed morally degenerate (including works by Picasso and Salvador Dalí) were sold to non-German collectors or eventually burned in a pubic bonfire at the Jeu de Paume in 1942. Thanks to an intrepid curator who served as a double agent during the plundering, many of the pieces that passed through the Jeu de Paume were eventually recovered. The Louvre, which had resisted working with the Nazis, was less successful in repatriating its lost artwork. More than 70 years after the Nazis marched into Paris, the museum continues to come under fire for its role in the greatest cultural theft in history and its reluctance to return contested artwork.