Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Orpheus Clock - Simon Goodman

The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the NazisSo, I have a thing about history and stolen art, mainly because during this class in college I read a book called The Rape of Europa which was about the rampant art pillaging that went on during World War II.  Then I read The Monuments Men, about the group of Allied soldiers who were supposed to find and protect things during WWII, including but not limited to art.  And then I read another book about going undercover to recover art stolen from museums.  Basically, art is valuable, relatively easy to move, and relatively hard to track, which means it ends up getting used as currency in all kinds of transactions and then surfacing at some point with its provenance not really being on the firmest ground.  This is basically what The Orpheus Clock is about.

After Simon Goodman's father died, Simon and his brother Nick got all of these boxes containing documents about what their father had covertly been doing for the past half century: running around trying to recover the art and belonging that had been stolen from his family by the Nazis during WWII.  After realizing exactly what the scale of it was, Simon (and to some extent Nick, though he features much less prominently in this book) took up his father's search.  The Goodman family, then spelled "Gutmann," were Jewish in heritage though not really practice and were living in the Netherlands when the war started.  Generations of being banking magnates meant the family, in all its branches, was pretty wealthy, and Simon's grandfather was keeper of the family trust, which was massive.  There was a big house and lots of silver and fancy paintings.  And then, of course, because the Gutmanns were Jewish, the Nazis took it all and sent Simon's grandparents to a concentration camp, from which they didn't return alive.  Simon's father and aunt survived because they were living in England and Italy, respectively.

Now, reparations from the Holocaust are a really tricky subject because there's not a firm good way to handle them.  Here's the thing.  A lot of these belongings have popped up over the years with seemingly good providence, and so someone buys one of the things thinking it's okay.  And then, BANG!  It turns out it's not okay, that it's actually loot.  But the person who has it now still likes the thing, for the thing itself and not the history attached to it, and paid a lot of money for the thing, so obviously they're not so keen to give it up.  But the family that originally owned the thing wants it back because it shouldn't have been taken away from them in the first place.  Is there a good way to deal with this?  No, not really.  It's much easier when it's the government that still has the thing, because then at least it's not private individuals tangled up in it.

What this book does well is lays out the complexities of how hard it actually is to get back items that were taken during the Holocaust, because many of them have been scattered to the winds and then surfaced all over the place with seemingly clean backgrounds.  Did people look too hard at these backgrounds?  No, not really.  But then, if you look at the backgrounds of a lot of art, they're not really as clean as we'd like, which makes art trading in its entirety a very dirty and complicated business.  But I couldn't help but wonder why Goodman was doing this the whole time, and yes, I confess, he came off as a bit greedy, because his family didn't even want most of the stuff and ended up selling it immediately after they got it.  I know, I know; it's more complicated than that, because the money is rightfully theirs anyway, and so on and so forth.  That's fine; they're entitled to it.  But I feel like there could have been a better way to convey that than how Goodman did it.  It was the language he used about it, being so smug about items selling for much more than their appraisal values and such, and how he seemingly wasn't willing to work with people who thought they were buying (or receiving, in the cases of donated pieces) "clean" art.  It was...I dunno.  It just had a dirty feel about the whole process, when really it shouldn't have.  Them getting the stuff back from the Dutch government was much "cleaner" feeling to me, because it was really freakin' wrong of the government to keep all that stuff for all that time when they had a pretty good idea of who it had belonged to.  It's when people who didn't know and didn't have reason to got involved that it all had a sort of icky feel to it.

Also, more than half of this book isn't about getting art treasures back at all.  It's a multi-generational history of Goodman's family which wasn't entirely necessary for the book.  I think all of that could have been condensed to a chapter or two, at most, and then the rest of the book focused on the retrieval process, because that's what the book purports to be about.  I get that Goodman has discovered this incredibly lush and complex family history and wants to include it, but if that's the case the publisher should have looked into titling the book more accurately, because it was pretty misleading reading about bankers for 180+ pages (out of a 320-page book) when I thought I was going to be reading about art recovery.

3 stars out of 5.

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