'The Orpheus Clock,' a true story of Nazi art theft, is fascinating, horrifying, and essential

Simon Goodman’s account of his family's quest to recover art stolen by the Nazis is at once a family history, a memoir, a mini-social history of Germany pre-1914, a Holocaust story,  and a revealing look at the inner workings of the art world.

The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis. By Simon Goodman Scribner June 2015 352 pages. $28.00

It was only after his father’s death that Simon Goodman began to understand the taciturn man he had grown up with.  Bernard Goodman had traveled incessantly, and never once explained to his children the reasons for his trips.  He was a man whose British reserve occasionally lapsed to reveal a consuming bitterness and anger he never discussed with his family.

Simon’s understanding came from the boxes containing his fathers’ papers: art catalogues, inventories of art works; documents with references to Göring and Hitler; a visa with a Nazi eagle and swastika.  Simon and his brother Nicholas pieced together the family history they never knew and the quest that consumed their father’s life: They were Jewish, their name had originally been Gutmann, and their grandfather and great-grandfather had not only been two of the wealthiest bankers in Europe but among its most discerning art collectors. The Gutmann’s homes were graced with paintings by Botticelli, Degas, Renoir, Cranach, as well as works of gold and silver that included a 16th-century gilded table clock known as the Orpheus Clock.

And like so many Jews, Simon Goodman’s grandparents were murdered by the Germans. The loss of their incomparable art collection intensified the agony of their fate: Fritz and Luis Gutmann and their artwork become toys for the Nazi leadership in a series of unfathomably cruel games.

Fritz and Luis's son Bernard, Simon and Nicholas’s father, was one of the few Guttmans  to survive the war. He had been born in England when his father was working in the British branch of the family business, and thus had British citizenship.  He was living in London when World War II began.

Simon and Nicholas realized that their father, having been unable to save his parents, had spent his life trying to recover their legacy: an art collection first stolen by the Nazis, and now dispersed in art galleries around the world.

They decided to take up their father’s cause. The Orpheus Clock, Simon Goodman’s fascinating account of their quest for restitution, is at once a family history, a memoir, a mini-social history of Germany pre-1914, a Holocaust story,  and a revealing look at the inner workings of the art world, of the museums and auction houses that control billions of dollars worth of art, often with no idea how much of it might have been stolen.

Everyone is aware that the Nazis looted Europe, robbing both museums and individuals of art and much else. What is less known is the obstacles Allied governments (and much later, museums and lawyers) put up against anyone seeking to recover their stolen property. 

After the war when Bernard approached the Dutch government to reclaim his parents’ estate near Amsterdam (Fritz and Louise had, ironically, thought they would be safe from the Nazis in The Netherlands), he was told he would have to pay back taxes for the years of the German occupation. Claimants of stolen art works had to describe them in detail (exact canvas dimensions, for example) and provide documentation of ownership – documentation that often could be found only in the captured Nazi records on stolen artwork, records which had been declared classified and sealed by the Allies.  

Decades later museums and auction houses were no less intransigent. In one meeting about a painting that had belonged to the Gutmanns, a museum’s attorneys weren’t satisfied with documentation providing it had belonged to the family: They also demanded to see Simon’s birth certificate to prove he was Bernard’s son. In the case of a Renoir that had clearly belonged to the Gutmanns and come into the possession of Sotheby’s, the auction house authorities told Simon they were prepared to negotiate if he could document that his father had exercised “due diligence” in his postwar search for the painting.  In other words, Sotheby’s wanted to be satisfied that Bernard had looked hard enough to deserve to get it back.

Such a callous and hyper-legal mindset is the surreal obverse of the legalistic  process by which the Nazis extorted artwork from the original owners in the first place.  As they faced almost certain death, Jewish owners of coveted artworks were forced to sign paperwork “legally” handing it over to the Nazis. 

Nowhere is this perverseness more evident than in the immediate cause of Fritz Gutmann’s death in Theresienstadt. He owned a collection of silverwork destined for a museum being planned by Hitler. It had been confiscated by the Nazis and was in a Munich warehouse. They could have taken it anywhere they wanted at any time. But the Nazis wanted Fritz to sign a document formally making it the property of the German government. When he refused he was beaten to death.

Fascinating and horrifying specifics like those above are ultimately what make "The Orpheus Clock" so worth reading. It’s one thing to know in a general way about the Holocaust, about Nazi theft of art, or about institutional stonewalling of heirs grasping for something resembling justice. It’s quite another to read about it happening to individuals, to people whose name and story you know.

I should warn readers that Goodman isn’t a great writer. Clichés abound in "The Orpheus Clock." (Goodman actually writes at one point “If only poor Fritz had a grave, he would surely be turning in it.”)  And Goodman often introduces details of family life and history that add nothing to his story.  He actually loses control of his material altogether in a couple of the final chapters as his writing morphs into a travelogue with too much information about family members who are largely absent from the rest of the book.  But most of "The Orpheus" Clock was so gripping and horrifying that I actually didn’t care.

The Goodman family story is one that must to be told.

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