After school I would often play with friends in Prince’s Gardens in South Kensington. The west side, known as Prince’s Gate, consisted of expensive white villas all beautifully lit, especially come autumn. There was one exception, though, which we called the dark house. The children would all make up stories about its mysterious owner.
Forty years later, and under rather strange circumstances, I would discover the identity of the man at 56 Prince’s Gate.
For several years already, I had been hunting for my grandfather Fritz Gutmann’s art collection, looted during the second World War. Suddenly I was on the trail of a Rubens, which even my father had never seen. His father, who lived in Holland, had acquired the painting just before the war, while my father was still at Cambridge.
The Rubens “Conversion of St Paul” had been part of an extraordinary exchange between my grandfather and the Alte Pinakothek Museum in Munich. In 1937 the museum director had been ordered by Hitler, no less, to trade any superfluous foreign paintings in return for art of Germanic origin. As a result my grandfather was able to give them two fairly average German renaissance paintings in exchange for a Veronese “Madonna and Child”, a Dutch Baroque work, and the Rubens.
But when the shipment finally arrived from Munich, Fritz did not dare unpack his spectacular Rubens. With war clouds looming he felt obliged to ship the unopened crates to his agent in Paris for safe-keeping, along with some of the finest pieces from his collection. Holland was virtually defenseless and in 1938 most of Europe still had faith in France’s Maginot Line.
I have often wondered how different it all would have been if my grandfather had sent his precious artworks to London instead. But due to bitter experience Fritz did not trust the English. After all, he had spent three long years in a British camp on the Isle of Man, from 1915 to 1917.
Meanwhile, in Paris by 1940, my grandfather’s agent was busy trying to hide the paintings before fleeing the advancing Germans himself. But from recently declassified wartime records I was able to discover that, as early as July 1940, the Veronese was seized by the Nazis, as “abandoned Jewish property”.
The Rubens, however, did not seem to appear on any of the wartime inventories that I could find, scouring through the archives. Eventually, with the help of an ex-curator from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich I was able to secure a good, albeit old photo of the “Conversion of St Paul”.
Today, with all the information available through the internet, tracking down a painting by a famous artist is often the easiest part of what I do. The difficult part is proving it once belonged to my family. In this particular case, the Rubens had never been seen in the Gutmann home. There was no record of it even having been in Holland in the last 200 years.
Not only had my grandparents been swept away by the Nazis, but all the family records, painstakingly preserved over generations, were also destroyed. At the end of the war, when my father had finally returned to Holland, all he found was a house stripped bare, as if by locusts. When he started filing claims for his father’s disappeared collection, all he had to go on was his memory. No claim for the Rubens was ever filed.
I had stumbled on the unusual exchange of paintings, between Fritz Gutmann and the museum in Munich, quite by chance while I was researching one of the most prolific Nazi looters. This future looter had also been involved in strange dealings with the Alte Pinakothek just before the war, and the book I had come across documented all those exchanges.
Armed with an accurate image of the Rubens and its exact dimensions, it was not long before I tracked it down. It was in London, where I was born. And it was in Somerset House, a building my mother loved to visit - despite it having housed the Inland Revenue.
Today Somerset House is home to the famous Courtauld Gallery. And I was to discover, the gallery is in turn the home of the Prince’s Gate Bequest. The Bequest consisted of over five hundred paintings and drawings donated by a certain Count Antoine Seilern at the time of his death in 1978.
I was stunned by the reference to my old childhood haunt, especially when it became apparent that Seilern had been the occupant of the dark, gloomy house at number 56 Prince’s Gate, which had so captured our imagination as children.
Count Seilern was of the belief that electric light might damage his priceless collection of oil paintings. Apparently the modern convenience also distorted the colours of his masterpieces. And so he would sit behind the unopened blinds in the gloom of his mansion surrounded, among others, by no less than 32 Rubens artworks.
The coincidence was compounded when my cousins informed me that one of the other Rubens paintings had belonged to my grandfather’s brother! My great-uncle Herbert had been forced to sell his entire collection, including Rubens’ “The Coronation of the Virgin” in Berlin in 1934, before fleeing Nazi Germany.
After considerable correspondence with the museum, I met with one of the curators. To their credit the Courtauld was able to show me clear receipts for Fritz’s “Conversion of St Paul”. Most museums that I confront, concerning artworks originating from the Gutmann Collection, rarely have any documentation covering the Holocaust era. However in this rare instance they had a signed receipt by my grandfather’s agent in Paris, dated just before war broke out.
What happened to the money Count Seilern paid is still not clear. Fritz’s agent was able to flee Nazi occupied France, get across Spain and, in Lisbon, secure a boat bound for Cuba. After the war he re-emerged in the art trade in New York. Obviously my grandfather was not so lucky; and he certainly never saw his agent again.
Meanwhile concerning the other Gutmann Rubens, the Courtauld Gallery was able to keep the painting following a misguided decision from the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel. They managed to overlook completely the fact that whatever proceeds might have been received from the 1934 forced sale, they had ultimately been turned over to the Nazi state as payment for the notorious Reich Flight Tax levied on my great-uncle when he was lucky enough to leave Germany.
On a more positive note, and in Germany of all places not far from where my poor father is buried, my most recent restitution efforts have met with great success. The Old Castle museum in Stuttgart returned two exquisite gold renaissance clocks from the Gutmann Collection: the Reinhold Clock and the fabled Orpheus Clock.
The Orpheus Clock: the search for my family’s art treasures stolen by the Nazis by Simon Goodman (Scribe, £14.99) is published on August 13th.