France opens war museum thanks to hoarder's trove

Fri Nov 11, 2011 11:41am EST
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By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated a World War One museum on Friday, Armistice Day, bringing to light artifacts hidden away in the home of a private collector for decades.

The museum in Meaux, 40km (25 miles) northeast of Paris, features tens of thousands of objects produced during the war, from rifles to crisply ironed uniforms, from photographs to toothbrushes.

The collection, among Europe's most extensive, was put together by Jean-Pierre Verney, 65, an amateur archeologist who worked for years as a photographer before becoming an archivist at France's Ministry for Veterans.

Verney, who describes himself as a child of World War Two, said he developed a fascination for the war of the trenches as a child when his parents took him on holiday near a battle site in France's Aisne region.

At the age of 15 he hitchhiked to Verdun -- synonymous in French minds with the slaughter that characterized much of the fighting in World War One -- to scour for memorabilia. The collection he built up over years was stored in his home.

While curators from Berlin to Boston had their eyes on the collection, it was the mayor of Meaux, who is also leader of Sarkozy's UMP party, who won the right to make an offer, buying it for 600,000 euros ($815,000).

"I'm coming out of the trenches," said Verney, smiling. He added that he was relieved to turn over maintenance of his collection to professional curators.

The museum, which cost just under 30 million euros to build, adds another attraction for tourists who visit France for its wealth of battlefields and war history -- an estimated 20 million people per year.   Continued...

<p>France's President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurates the WWI museum in Meaux as part of ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of the First World War, November 11, 2011. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer</p>