Robbed by the Nazis: Our Q&A with Simon Goodman

the-orpheus-clock-9781451697636_hrSimon Goodman’s grandparents, the Gutmanns, perished while imprisoned in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The pair had worked as successful bankers throughout their lives and became very wealthy. As lovers of art and culture, the Gutmanns amassed an extravagant, world-class collection of fine art; a collection that was stolen from them during the Nazi regime. Upon his father’s death, Simon discovered that his family had been secretly been trying to track down the missing art ever since it had been stolen. His memoir The Orpheus Clock details his 15 year quest to reclaim his family’s riches. 

What are some of the notable pieces of art in the Gutmanns’ collection?

Madonna and Child by Hans Memling

Le Poirier by Auguste Renoir

Portrait of Isaac Massa by Frans Hal

Samson and the Lion by Lucas Cranach

Battle of Veio by Biagio d’Antonio

Femme se chauffant by Edgar Degas

Temptation of St. Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

Isola della Laguna by Francesco Guardi

Triton Ewer (silver-gilt) by Johannes Lencker

Orpheus Clock (gold) by Wenzel Jamnitzer

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Samson and the Lion

How did your grandparents come to compile such an extravagant collection, and how did they lose it? 

My grandparents both came from wealthy banking families. My great-grandfather, in Germany, had acquired the Renaissance ‘silver collection’ during the 19th century. But my grandparents’ painting collection was mostly compiled during the 1920s thanks to the great success of my grandfather’s private bank in Amsterdam. One way or another the entire collection was lost during the Nazi takeover of Western Europe.

What drove your father to pursue the stolen art?

My father was determined to restore the family legacy and fight for justice.

How did you find out about the Gutmanns’ collection, and why do you think your father kept his quest to find it secret from you?

I really only found out about the scale of the family collection after my father died. I think, as a result of the frustration and rejection he experienced after the war, he did not want his sons to suffer the same humiliation.

Were you interested in art before you knew of your family’s collection?

Yes, my parents had instilled in me a deep appreciation of art, art history and architecture. Even as a teenager I was familiar with most of the great museums of Western Europe.

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Do you know of any other people who have successfully tracked down and reclaimed art or other valuable items stolen from their families by the Nazis?

When I found my first painting there were no other families who had recovered anything from the Holocaust in several decades. After locating the Degas in 1995 and the subsequent legal battle, many other families started to successfully track their own lost legacy.

Where has your search for your family’s stolen art taken you?

Right across the United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic.

You’ve been searching for the art for 15 years. What drives you to relentlessly continue this mammoth mission?

It’s actually been 20 years now. My primary motivation, apart from the fact I find the quest thrilling, is to do whatever I can, however small, to right some of the wrongs committed against my family and so many others.

GOODMAN-Simon

Simon Goodman

What made you decide to chronicle your story?

I was shocked by how quickly my family, in Germany and elsewhere, went from fame and fortune to almost complete obscurity. By writing the book I was able to communicate with the family I had never known and bring their story back to life.

What is the Orpheus Clock?

The Orpheus Clock is an extremely rare and beautiful 16th-century round table clock made from gold and brass. It symbolises my largely successful attempt to reunite the remaining dispersed fragments of my family, many of whom had never known each other. The restitution of this remarkable clock is also significant because it was my first direct restitution from Germany.

The Orpheus Clock is published by Scribe Publishing. 

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