The Orpheus Clock
The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis by Simon Goodman. (Scribner, 353 pp. $28)
There have been many hands—metaphorically and physically—that have been placed on the Orpheus Clock since its creation in the 16th century by German goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer. But only recently, after almost two decades of persistence by Simon Goodman, a British music executive, to establish that the clock was wrested from his grandfather Fritz, by the Nazis, has the clock been acknowledged as a family heirloom.
“If one can visualize the chronometrically perfect components rendered in gilt brass,” Goodman writes of his great-grandfather’s prize acquisition, “with a case of gold and bronze covered with intricate high-relief depictions of scenes from the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld, one has an idea of the mechanical mastery and artistic genius of this clock.”
It takes a while to get to the clock’s final resolution, but the travails of retrieving the Goodman family’s art treasures from the clutches of the heirs of the Nazis and their collaborators, unsympathetic postwar governments, unethical art dealers and legal obstacles provide gripping, and important, reading.
Goodman’s German ancestors, the Gutmanns, achieved great wealth in banking. His great-great-grandfather, Eugen, lived in a castle in Dresden and, with a discerning eye, acquired a priceless art collection, which son Fritz enlarged. In the Gutmanns’ homes hung works by Edgar Dégas, Pierre August Renoir, Sandro Botticelli, Cranach the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch and a stunning nude by Franz von Stuck as well as gold and silver objet d’art like the Orpheus Clock.
During a wave of anti-Semitism after World War I, Eugen Gutmann converted to Christianity. Later, Fritz chose to live with his wife and two children in peaceful, neutral Netherlands, while he ran the Dutch branch of the bank. When the Nazis invaded the country, they forced Fritz to sign away almost all of the art collection, and then sent him and his wife to a concentration camp. But Fritz refused to give up his claim to the clock. In 1944, he was beaten to death in a prison called the Little Fortress near the Theresienstadt concentration camp; several weeks later, his wife was gassed in Auschwitz.
Fritz’s son, Bernard, was one of the few family members to survive the war. He Anglicized his name to Goodman and settled in London. Enigmatic and taciturn, Bernard had a mission, but he didn’t share it with his family. Only after his death in 1994 did his sons Simon and Nicholas begin to understand their father’s frequent travels. They discovered his secret: Bernard was trying to retrieve the stolen art, now dispersed in countless art galleries and collections around the world.
The brothers decided to take up their father’s cause. But to get the trove back required endless hours of proving their own identities—not to mention enormous legal fees.They had to work out deals with various art auction houses and museums, get in touch with distant family members and make compromises to achieve a satisfactory result.
Photographs of the art-works in color and black-and-white and pictures of the family enrich the narrative; a family tree depicts its far-flung European connections.
Much of the Gutmann collection had been recovered by the Allies’ Monuments Men—assigned to rescue artworks stolen by the Nazis—and returned to the Netherlands, where the family had last resided. Heirs had to file official claims with the government and describe lost works in detail. The art catalogs collected by Bernard Goodman proved invaluable. Proof of ownership, Simon Goodman points out, “had been dispersed, destroyed or taken by the very people who stole the paintings in the first place.”
In all, 255 pieces were returned to the heirs of Fritz Gutmann. But the Orpheus Clock was not one of them. Simon Goodman then found a letter made out to the general who stole the clock and traced it from that general to a collector and, finally, to The Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart, Germany.
The museum’s provenance expert agreed that the clock belonged to the family. They struck a deal, for an undisclosed sum, to keep the clock in the museum.
Ironies abound in this remarkable story, and 70 years after the end of World War II, the hunt for lost art goes on.