THE ORPHEUS CLOCK
by Simon Goodman
The childhood of Bernard and Lili Gutmann was a charmed one. Their father, Fritz, was an heir of the Gutmann banking dynasty, a family of wealthy, highly educated Jews who ran the German Dresdner Bank, and Bernard and Lili were brought up at Bosbeek, a 17th-century country mansion not far from Amsterdam.
There was a butler, a cook, a governess, seven maids, two chauffeurs and an army of groundsmen. For Lili's tenth birthday, an entire circus troupe - clowns, lions, lion-tamers and trapeze artists - performed under a big top in the garden.
Lost and found: Silver treasures are recovered from the Nazis by American soldiers in 1945
Fritz had wonderful taste and filled the house with Louis XV tables and sofas, Aubusson tapestries, Meissen vases and Chinese porcelain.
There were paintings by the great master of Venetian canal scenes Francesco Guardi and works by Degas and Renoir.
The family also had a spectacular collection of silver amassed over several generations.
But this charmed life came to an end on May 10, 1940, when squadrons of bombers roared over Bosbeek. Within five days, the Luftwaffe had razed Rotterdam and Dutch forces had surrendered to the Nazis.The first Nazi agent arrived at Bosbeek a month later. Systematically, the Gutmann family were stripped of everything they had: their art, their house, their freedom and, ultimately, their lives.
Simon Goodman (the family anglicised their surname after the war), son of Bernard and grandson of Fritz and Louise, has forensically pieced together what happened to his grandparents and their art collection after they were forced to sign it away to Hitler and Goering's art poachers.
When Fritz refused to give up the family silver, including a prized silver 'Orpheus Clock' painted with scenes of the Greek hero in the underworld, which gives this book its title, he and Louise were taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp. When he still refused to comply, Fritz was beaten to death and Louise transported to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers.750,000 Number of artworks stolen by Hitler during World War II
Bernard, who had studied history of art at Cambridge in the Thirties, survived the war and devoted much of his later life to tracking down what had been stolen from his parents.
When he died in 1994, box after box of yellowing notes, archive cuttings, inventories and auction catalogues were delivered to his sons, Simon and Nick. Together, they have continued their father's dogged sleuthing, recovering what was lost and looted.
Hitler and Goering, whom Goodman describes as 'a collector of virtually kleptomaniacal proportions', vied to assemble the greatest collection of art and antiquities.
They appointed agents with such spurious titles as Special Commissioner for the Protection of Works of Art in the Occupied Territory. Looting was thus given a veneer of legitimacy.
The Nazis insisted on wrapping even their most despicable acts, all the way down to mass murder, in a strange patina of legality,' writes Goodman.
In the Nazi view, it was all quite legal to confiscate or force the sale of artworks from terrified Jews, provided the "seller" signed the necessary paperwork in triplicate . . . That the purchase of such artworks was negotiated, in effect, at gunpoint did not, in the Nazi view, make the resulting deals any less legitimate.'
It is said that while Goering awaited trial at Nuremberg, he blithely dismissed accusations that he was complicit in the murder of 6 million people, yet bridled when accused of being an art thief.
Although much art was recovered after the war by the Allies from warehouses, salt mines and the private houses of the Nazi high command, there were no resources for surviving family members to reclaim what was theirs.
It has taken 70 years of legal wrangling and the determination of families such as the Goodmans for stolen art to be reunited with its rightful owners.
Goodman gives what he calls the 'expected' motive: he wanted justice for his grandparents.
Each time he recovered a teacup, a tapestry, a clock, he felt Fritz, Louise and his father looking proudly over his shoulder.
He offers a second motive, too. He was angry at the 'murders, the thefts, the lies and the betrayals they had endured'.
You cannot help but cheer when the 81-year-old Lili sinks happily into her mother's favourite yellow-upholstered armchair - now threadbare and faded, but no less cherished.