LONDON — The arrival of some musty boxes from Germany in the fall of 1994 to Nick Goodman’s Los Angeles home fundamentally altered his and his brother Simon’s perceptions of their father. These boxes were “the last tired remnants of our late father’s estate,” as Simon refers to them in his newly published book, “The Orpheus Clock.”
After close inspection, however, the bureaucratic contents revealed evidence of their father Bernard Goodman’s painstaking search for his family’s missing art collection — valuable works the Nazis had stolen from his parents.
Published in August, “The Orpheus Clock” is, by Simon Goodman’s own admission, a complicated book. Part family memoir, part investigative quest, it pieces together the brothers’ efforts, as well as those of their father, into recovering the family’s looted heritage and lost legacy.
What is striking is the sheer scale of theft involved. The Goodman brothers identified approximately 400 art works formerly owned by their grandparents. Although over half have been recovered — a large proportion of which came in a 2002 settlement with the Dutch government — many more remain in museums, in private collections or their whereabouts unknown.
The Goodmans’ resolve, drive and tenacity is palpable. Simon, who had worked in the music business, decided to sell his company in the early 2000s and devote his time and energy into looking for the missing artworks.
“It was a serendipitous moment with the digital age just about to break then and the business I was in was about to be changed forever,” he says.
Complex research demands and a seemingly never-ending cycle of restitution claims meant hunting became his full time job, “his path in life.”
Born in 1948, Simon Goodman grew up in London. The brothers’ non-Jewish mother insisted on raising them as Anglicans. He and Nick were christened, vaguely aware that their father’s parents had been Jewish and had died in the war.
There had been no communication with any extended family during these childhood years, even though they knew they had cousins who lived close by. It was only later that Goodman learnt there had been a family feud. Speaking on the phone to The Times of Israel from LA, his home since 1970s, he explains that those who had survived the war felt they had not been given enough of the “crumbs of what was left of the family estate.”
Bernard had told his sons him virtually nothing about his past, making it clear that he did not want to talk about it. In fact he spoke little about anything, says Goodman.
The loss of Bernard’s parents — his mother in Auschwitz and his father in the Little Fortress, a prison close to Theresienstadt – had profoundly effected him.
“His body language was completely shut down. I didn’t dare ask him difficult questions because I sensed that it was painful,” Goodman explains. Instead, he gleaned fragments of information from his mother and gathered that his grandparents, Fritz Gutmann and Louise Gutmann von Landau, had been very wealthy.
As a teenager, Simon also found a book that his mother had hidden in which the Gutmanns were mentioned. Inside were folded letters written to the Red Cross after the war, requesting information about the couple.
“It was kind of the beginning of me filling in the jigsaw pieces,” he says today.
In “The Orpheus Clock,” Goodman recalls standing with his father in front of a Frans Hals seventeenth century oil painting, “Portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa,” in the San Diego Museum of Art. It was a rare and uncharacteristic moment as Bernard told him that his father had once owned the painting but it had to be sold during World War II. At the time, the revelation had meant little.
Eventually, Simon and Nick Goodman would understand that the Gutmann family had founded one of the biggest banks in Germany: Dresdner. Bernard and his sister, Lili, were descendants of this German, then latterly Dutch, banking dynasty and Bosbeek, the Dutch estate where they had lived, had housed an art collection worthy of a world-class museum. It included Old Masters, Impressionist paintings such as works by Degas and Renoir, fine porcelain, Louis XV furniture, tapestries and priceless Renaissance sculptures, as well as a valuable silver collection.
In 1995, Simon discovered the first painting that belonged to the lost collection: “Paysage” (Landscape with Smokestacks) by Edgar Degas. But the restitution process was lengthy and costly, requiring legal proceedings to be brought against the painting’s owner, Chicago billionaire Daniel Searle. Finally, after three years of legal wrangling there was a partial settlement.
At the time, Goodman says the art world was very resistant to what the brothers were trying to do. They “viewed us as upstarts,” he explains in the book. Despite this, it proved to be a landmark case in the United States for other Holocaust art restitution claimants.
Since then, auction houses such as Christies and Sotheby’s have established their own restitution departments, and they contact him if something comes up with his family’s name somewhere in the provenance of a piece of art.
Post-WWII Allied policy saw military arts specialists known as Monuments Men researching and sending stolen art works back to their countries of origin. Yet it was left to the post-war governments of those countries to return the art to their owners or heirs, provided proof was produced of who they were and what they had owned. The units were disbanded in 1946.
Goodman acknowledges there were limitations to what the Monuments Men could do. Although they were “good at what they did, they were very few of them and it was a monumental task. On a practical issue they were soldiers first and foremost and they didn’t want to get involved in sifting through a million people’s claims.”
Also, new post-war governments were trying to rebuild their country and the issue of what had been taken from Europe’s Jews was not a priority, he says.
The book’s title refers to the family’s first direct restitution from Germany — an elaborate sixteenth century table clock, of which only 12 were ever made. It had originally belonged to his great-grandfather.
“I like the idea of the passage of time signifying what my family had been through,” says Simon. But the piece also symbolizes Goodman managing to bring together his extended family — the cousins he never knew.
Not surprisingly, he says that, “The more I dig, the more I discover.”
He has found a secondary art collection that the Gutmann children (his father and sister, Lili) were never allowed to see, and which appears to have been stored in the private bank in Amsterdam. He has sourced paintings that his 96-year-old aunt was unaware that the family had even owned.
But, he says, every time he sells a piece of art he is accused of financial motivations, that his quest is more about the money than the art. Goodman thinks anti-Semitism may feed this notion.
‘It is as if asking for your birthright is somehow anti-social, unpatriotic’
“The same thing was leveled at my father and people like him, right after the war in Holland. It is as if asking for your birthright is somehow anti-social, unpatriotic,” he says.
Searching for recovered art is a costly business and funds are needed to support it, even though he tries to do much of the work himself. He says that dividing any proceeds between the three direct heirs — Simon, Nick and their aunt — and their families makes financial sense.
“You can’t split a painting into three. Unfortunately the only way to divide it fairly is to sell it,” he says.
With a massive catalog left to recover, Goodman does not foresee a time when he will cease searching.
“Everything was taken from us, so any little bit of retribution that I can eke out of this is very satisfying,” he says.