Simon Goodman and 'The Orpheus Clock'

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For some twenty years, I have been hearing my friend Simon Goodman talk about his family in Germany before World War II, then named Gutmann and founders of the Dresdner Bank, Jews who had lost their fortune and their lives to the Nazis. After his father had passed away in 1991, Simon and his brother Nick Goodman had been sent boxes of old papers. As they sifted through them, they realized many were documents about the enormous Gutmann art collection. These provided details of the forced sales of these artworks to unscrupulous art dealers representing Hitler and Goering and other high-ranking officials.

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Simon and Nick Goodman with a Degas landscape, Chicago 1998
Courtesy of the Goodman family

After many years of research, Goodman was able to recreate his wealthy grandparents' history, including their gruesome execution, and discover the whereabouts of many works by art including work by Botticelli, Renoir and Degas, and Renaissance silver and Louis V furniture. His new life as self-styled detective, art historian and attorney always sounded to me like fascinating reading and so they are in his first book, The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family's Art Treasure Stolen by the Nazis. (Scribner) He will be appearing at Diesel Books in Brentwood at 6:30 this Tuesday, September 1.

Of course, there are other books and memoirs about art restitution. The best known may be The Lady in Gold, about the recovery of Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by her niece Maria Altmann.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Le Poirier," 1880
Courtesy of Christie's

Goodman's book covers the Gutmann family history, their commitment as collectors, their immense financial resources eradicated in short order by legal maneuvers of the Nazis, the terrifying details of repeated visits to their homes, each time forcing the sales of more art, furniture, porcelain and carpets for absurdly low sums that are never actually received by the family. The final transport to execution camps. Painful and revealing it is and a saga that is sadly familiar. What is less familiar is the way in which Goodman exposes to a great degree the post-war collusion of museums, art dealers and auction houses in preventing the rightful return of these art works to the heirs of the Gutmanns and other Holocaust victims.

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Fritz Gutmann by Man Ray, 1926
Courtesy of the Goodman family

Despite the intensely personal nature of his story, Goodman has gone to great lengths to chronicle the frustrating, time-consuming, mind-numbing bureaucracy meant to slow and ultimately defeat the efforts of those trying to reclaim their lost heritage. The Dutch government in particular is revealed to have been intractable, even insulting, in its response over the years, initially demanding that Goodman's father, whose parents had been Dutch citizens, to actually pay for the return of their own works of art, after they were discovered by the Allies after the war. And to pay back taxes on their parents' home, which had been seized by the Nazis. Even when Goodman was able to provide extensive documentation of his family's position as previous owners, the Rijksmuseum repeatedly ignored his requests for restitution. While reading this account, I practically cheered when he prevailed after years of stonewalling and wrangling.

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Botticelli, "Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap," 1484
Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum

Sotheby's auction house, too, comes off as insensitive at best as it offers for sale a Botticelli painting from the Gutmann collection, an image that had been sent to them previously by Goodman's lawyer with a request that he be notified if they ever came across such a work.

He names names: Karl Haberstock, Julius Bohler and others, dealers to the Nazi high command who extorteded art from prominent Jews across Europe, who are "denazified" after the war and permitted to go back into business as art dealers.

He also names those committed to do "the right thing:" Suzanne Delehanty and Rutgers University who quickly return a portrait by Hans Baldung-Grien, a Jewish collector in LA who returns Franz von Stuck's painting, Sin.

As the Internet facilitated the research of provenance — the history of ownership of a work of art — things changed quickly. In addition, documents classified for 50 years after the war became newly available and to Goodman's amazement, inventories, correspondence, invoices and much more detailed precisely the titles, dates, prices and so forth of his grandparents collection, much of which had been slated at one point for the Fuhrer's own museum in Linz. As a result, Goodman has been able to identify many works though recovery of them is an ongoing battle. A former rock music entrepreneur, he seems slightly bemused to now find himself considered an authority in the field of art restitution.

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Orpheus Clock, ca.1580
Courtesy of Landesmuseum Stuttgart

Even having heard quite of bit of this story first hand from Goodman over the years, I found his book to pace as effectively as a thriller. In the process, he sheds light on the shadowy world of international art commerce. Anyone who still doubts the moral authority of art restitution claims, and they do exist, should read this book. But really, it is terrific read full stop.