Still life with a plate of onions, Vin­cent Van Gogh, 1889

Kröller-Müller Muse­um

Research­ing a nov­el always leads me to unex­pect­ed places and dis­cov­er­ies. In the case of my most recent nov­el, The Lost Van Gogh, the sub­ject I found myself immersed in was loot­ed art and art resti­tu­tion, top­ics very much in the news today, and a com­plex moral dilem­ma for muse­ums and col­lec­tors. In the nov­el, I trace the sto­ry of one paint­ing hid­den by the French Resis­tance in a unique way, and found by my pro­tag­o­nists, Luke and Alex, eighty years lat­er, only to have it stolen again. Their ensu­ing hunt takes them across the globe – from New York to Ams­ter­dam – and final­ly to Auvers-sur-Oise, France, where Vin­cent Van Gogh spent his last sev­en­ty days. Work­ing along with Luke and Alex (and some­times against them), is INTER­POL agent John Wash­ing­ton Smith, all three risk­ing their lives as they come up against the peo­ple who traf­fic in ille­gal art, some who will stop at noth­ing – not even mur­der – to pro­tect their invest­ment. Though the nov­el mix­es fact and fic­tion, the ruth­less and immoral art deal­ers por­trayed in the sto­ry are based on real-life examples.

The Nazi plun­der of art was unlike any art theft before or since. The scale of theft was enor­mous, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­tak­en, and heav­i­ly doc­u­ment­ed, one-fifth of Europe’s art was stolen, with over 100, 000 pieces still miss­ing today. As the Nazis occu­pied one coun­try after anoth­er, lists were com­piled, and promi­nent Jew­ish art col­lec­tors tar­get­ed. Col­lec­tions were sold under duress, a gun held to the owner’s head as they signed bills of sale,” and com­pen­sa­tion sent to bank accounts that were imme­di­ate­ly frozen. 

The Third Reich had a per­verse rela­tion­ship to art, steal­ing both what they liked (rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al and clas­si­cal Ger­man art), and what they did not, which they labeled degen­er­ate (mod­ern art, and art made by Jews, artists of col­or, or homo­sex­u­als), the lat­ter art­work sold to sup­port the Nazi war effort or was destroyed in bonfires. 

While Hitler accu­mu­lat­ed art for the Führermu­se­um (which he planned to build in his home­town of Linz, Aus­tria), oth­er high-rank­ing Nazi offi­cials like Gor­ing and Goebels stock­piled stolen art for their own pri­vate, often vast, art collections. 

When the war end­ed, the Mon­u­ments Men was formed, a group of 345 art his­to­ri­ans, cura­tors, and art spe­cial­ists, who worked to return Nazi-loot­ed art to the coun­tries from which it had been stolen. The coun­try, not the indi­vid­u­als. Cre­at­ed in 1943, it was dis­band­ed in 1946, long before the job was done. 

The sto­ries of heirs try­ing to piece togeth­er art col­lec­tions belong­ing to grand­par­ents and great-grand­par­ents are numer­ous and heart­break­ing. Even the Jew­ish col­lec­tors who moved in the high­est stra­ta of Ger­man soci­ety, who felt safe and pro­tect­ed by their wealth, were ulti­mate­ly mur­dered for their art. In many cas­es, these fam­i­lies had con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty with lit­tle or no knowl­edge of their Jew­ish heritage. 

A less­er-known fact is that Fluchtgut, or flight assets” which refers to art sold by Jews under duress, is still trad­ed. Many of the art deal­ers who acquired and sold stolen art dur­ing the war (for which they were nev­er held account­able or put on tri­al), con­tin­ued to do so after, and some of their heirs con­tin­ue to do so today.

The Nazi plun­der of art was unlike any art theft before or since. The scale of theft was enor­mous, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­tak­en, and heav­i­ly doc­u­ment­ed, one-fifth of Europe’s art was stolen, with over 100, 000 pieces still miss­ing today. 

Case in point, Cor­nelius Gurlitt (son of Hilde­brand Gurlitt, one of Hitler’s four appoint­ed art deal­ers), came under sus­pi­cion on a 2010 trip from Munich to Zurich, when a rou­tine check revealed he was trav­el­ing with $10,000 in cash. This led to fur­ther inves­ti­ga­tion and final­ly, in 2012, to a search of his Munich apart­ment. There, 1,500 pieces of art were dis­cov­ered, includ­ing work by Picas­so, Matisse, Mon­et, and Renoir, among oth­ers. Many were Nazi-loot­ed and miss­ing since the end of war; Gurlitt’s sto­ry a clear exam­ple that such ille­gal art deal­ing has con­tin­ued long after the war ended.

All of this plays out as an inte­gral part of The Lost Van Gogh, a thriller with seri­ous issues at its core. With the aid of a con­tem­po­rary Fluchtgut hunter, my three pro­tag­o­nists, Luke, Alex, and Smith, track down the lost Van Gogh self-por­trait, and in dis­cov­er­ing the painting’s ori­gin, come to a trag­ic real­iza­tion: that every Nazi-stolen paint­ing rep­re­sents a stolen life.

I took my cue from leg­endary Hol­ly­wood film direc­tor and screen­writer Bil­ly Wilder, an Aus­tri­an-born Jew, whose fam­i­ly died in con­cen­tra­tion camps. Wilder (who moved to Paris after Hitler’s rise to pow­er, and lat­er to Hol­ly­wood), was hired by the US Army to film the lib­er­a­tion of the camps. When he screened his doc­u­men­tary, Death Mills, in Berlin, half the audi­ence left, the oth­er half were stunned into silence. What Wilder took from this expe­ri­ence was the need to enter­tain if you want­ed to show the truth. As he often said, the tougher the mate­r­i­al the more you’d bet­ter make them laugh. 

I was not look­ing for laughs in The Lost Van Gogh, but my intent was to enter­tain, to cre­ate a page-turn­ing nov­el while shin­ing a light on one of history’s dark­est eras. 

As I write this, Nazi-loot­ed Egon Schiele water­col­ors are about to hit the auc­tion block, their com­bined val­ue sev­er­al mil­lion dol­lars. Fifty per­cent of the sale pro­ceeds will go to the heirs of the orig­i­nal own­er, Fritz Grün­baum, a Jew­ish cabaret per­former who died in Dachau in 1941. Dur­ing his detain­ment, Grün­baum was forced to sign a pow­er of attor­ney doc­u­ment and sur­ren­der his art­works, which were sub­se­quent­ly parceled off and sold to ben­e­fit the Nazi Par­ty. Grünbaum’s heirs plan to put their share toward a schol­ar­ship pro­gram for young musicians.

Sant­lofer is the author of six best­selling nov­els, among them The Death Artist, and Nero award-win­ning Anato­my of Fear. His mem­oir, The Wid­ow­er’s Note­book, received nation­al acclaim and was fea­tured on NPRs Fresh Air with Ter­ry Gross. He is the editor/​creator of sev­en antholo­gies, the recip­i­ent of two NEA grants, Vis­it­ing Artist at the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my in Rome, and serves on the board of Yad­do. He is a not­ed speaker.