The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Trea­sures Stolen by the Nazis

  • Review
By – May 19, 2015

Eighty years after the Nazis came to pow­er in Ger­many and unleashed the Holo­caust, the atten­tion of his­to­ri­ans and researchers has increas­ing­ly turned to the sys­tem­at­ic loot­ing of Jew­ish prop­er­ty, espe­cial­ly works of art, dur­ing the peri­od. This title is both a fam­i­ly his­to­ry and the trag­ic tale of an assim­i­lat­ed clan and its famed col­lec­tion. The author is a descen­dant of the Gut­manns, a Ger­man Jew­ish bank­ing dynasty. In the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the Gut­manns con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. Pre- and post-con­ver­sion, they enjoyed close busi­ness and social rela­tion­ships with mem­bers of the upper class and aris­toc­ra­cy. Their true ori­en­ta­tion was sec­u­lar. Branch­es of the fam­i­ly set­tled in Hol­land, Britain, and Italy. In Britain, the Gut­manns became the Good­mans. Simon’s great-grand­fa­ther laid the foun­da­tion for the art col­lec­tion. His grand­fa­ther and uncle expand­ed the hold­ings. His father, who spoke lit­tle about his her­itage, devot­ed his life to track­ing down stolen items — with­out much suc­cess. The col­lec­tion includ­ed paint­ings by Bosch,Cranach, Degas, and Renoir; sil­ver and chi­na, rugs, and Renais­sance clocks. The Orpheus Clock of the title was made of gilt brass, gold, and bronze and inscribed with scenes of the leg­end of Orpheus in the Under­world. Simon’s uncle, execu­tor of the Gut­mann estate, was trapped in occu­pied Hol­land and was forced to sell” much of the col­lec­tion to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Hitler and Goer­ing. That uncle and his wife were mur­dered in con­cen­tra­tion camps. Simon’s search was obstruct­ed by for­mer Nazis, by states and muse­ums which hoped to retain the art for them­selves, art deal­ers, and auc­tion hous­es. Simon regards the resti­tu­tion as a sym­bol of the Nazis’ fail­ure to oblit­er­ate Jews and Jew­ish cul­ture. For him, each suc­cess has brought solace and an anti­dote for a life-long feel­ing of root­less­ness. The author reveals a broad knowl­edge of and respect for Jew­ish his­to­ry. Such per­son­al­iza­tion of his­toric events does height­en the impact and brings the read­er into clos­er con­tact with these events. How­ev­er, the recita­tion of numer­ous fam­i­ly anec­dotes and inclu­sion of records of end­less nego­ti­a­tions and legal twists and turns may become diver­sions. Judi­cious trim­ming would not have com­pro­mised the wor­thy mes­sage of this appeal­ing work. Indices fea­ture a fam­i­ly tree and a list of recov­ered art.

Lib­by K. White is direc­tor of the Joseph Mey­er­hoff Library of Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, MD and gen­er­al edi­tor of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Newsletter.

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