‘The Orpheus Clock’
Diesel Bookstore celebrates Simon Goodman’s absorbing memoir of tracking down a massive collection of family artworks looted during the Holocaust
By Bliss Bowen
When Simon Goodman and his brother Nick received corrugated containers from their father Bernard’s estate in 1994, they had no inkling they were opening Pandora’s proverbial box.
Their emotionally distant father had lived in “genteel poverty” in Europe, so they were stunned to learn they were descendants of what had once been one of Germany’s wealthiest banking families — and that Bernard had invested many years in attempting to reclaim the enormous collection of Renaissance and Impressionist paintings, jewelry, china, pottery, tapestries, rugs, furniture, sculptures and Medieval-era silver stolen from his parents by the Nazis when Holland was absorbed into the Third Reich in 1939.
With the aid of Bernard’s records, newly declassified government documents, museum catalogs and the Internet, Simon Goodman embarked on a journey of discovery of not only the lost art, but also of his connection with his family. “The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis” is his compellingly told account of the groundbreaking search made by the Goodman brothers and their aunt Lili.
“Many times,” Goodman writes, “I felt I had inherited what appeared to be ancestral memories.”
Their story may sound familiar. The family’s case regarding a Degas painting in 1998 inspired a State Department-convened international conference that resulted in the establishment of “standards for resolving issues of Nazi-confiscated art,” known as the Washington Principles. The Goodmans have been the subject of many newspaper reports, an Emmy-winning “60 Minutes” segment, and a British documentary, 2000’s “Making a Killing.” (Goodman credits the power of the press with increasing pressure on governments and museums reluctant to part with their treasures.) Similar terrain was covered in the recent films “Woman in Gold” and “The Monuments Men” — the latter based on Robert M. Edsel’s 2010 bestseller, concerning a special American-British force of art historians and museum directors who are singled out for praise by Goodman.
Yet Goodman’s decision to devote the first third of “Orpheus Clock” to oft-covered WWII terrain was wise, as the particulars of his once-powerful family’s experience root his story in deeper emotional soil. Through meticulous research, he reconstructs their history and explains how his widely respected great-grandfather, Eugen Gutmann, built up one of the most successful banks in Europe; and places his grandparents, Fritz and Louise Gutmann, in detailed social and historical context that helps convey the dread that builds with the Nazis’ inexorable approach.
All that gives human dimension to what otherwise might be an intellectual detective exercise — Where are the paintings? Who smuggled the titular clock? — and grounds the book in his very relatable mission to know the grandparents he never met, and to understand the father made untouchably remote by their murder. Even while knowing their roads ultimately lead to Theresienstadt concentration camp, Goodman’s clear, sophisticated prose and pacing keep you turning pages to learn their fates.
“The effort to reclaim these works was not only an attempt to recover a vestige of our rich family heritage, but also our way of proving that, despite the Nazis’ having so nearly destroyed our history, they had ultimately failed,” Goodman writes, after he, Nick and Lili have successfully sued for restitution of some Gutmann paintings. Their exhausting, sometimes bitter pursuit places them at odds with recalcitrant collectors, culture ministers and museums on both sides of the Atlantic. The lessons of history it imparts are sobering. Seventy decades after the fact, stories like the Goodmans’ reveal that the Nazis not only perpetrated genocide of unprecedented scale, they also committed systematic theft so massive its scope is still being uncovered.
“The postwar governments of countries once occupied by the Germans were afraid that once restitution started, there would be no end. … From my grandfather’s Botticelli and Hispano-Suiza sedan down to the brooms and brushes in the kitchen — Jewish clothes, books, furniture, apartments, jewelry, shops, cars, businesses, bicycles, everything, including the pots and pans, had been divided among a willing population. By allowing entire countries to be accessories to the greatest crime in history, the Nazis knew that everybody would also have to be part of the greatest cover-up.”
Tracking down lost Guttman artworks becomes a globetrotting adventure. The Dutch government ultimately returned about 250 pieces, including Fritz Guttman’s mahogany shaving stand, which was used as a flowerpot by a German dealer instrumental in helping the Nazis loot art collections. As Goodman articulately chronicles where individual pieces traveled, it’s fascinating to ponder differences in meaning they held for successive owners. His search raises provocative questions about identity, family and the value of art — which, he discovers, is a cold business. Many people didn’t — and still don’t —comprehend what its loss signifies to heirs of Holocaust victims, nor the sense of justice stirred by the art’s return.
“The looting of all the possessions of the Jews, especially their money and their art, was intrinsically linked to their annihilation,” he writes. “This was barely understood in the years immediately after the war. Accordingly, art looting was considered a bloodless crime.”
Obviously, it was anything but. Goodman does encounter collectors and museums that return his family’s art because they do not want blood on their hands. Reading those passages of light, at a time when people around the world are still enslaved, tortured and killed for the crime of existence, inspires some hope.
Meet Simon Goodman at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1, during a pre-publication party for “The Orpheus Clock” at Diesel Bookstore in the Brentwood Country Mart, 225 26th St., Ste. 33, Santa Monica. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dieselbookstore.com/brentwood-info.