Recent Readings: The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis

Goodman, Simon (2015). The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis. New York, NY: Scribner.

Simon Goodman’s account of his extended family’s life before, during, and after the Holocaust haunts me in all the tiny details of suffering and complicity. It is the story of the wealth his family built with the banks they founded and built; the art collections they built with that wealth; how the Nazis removed them from their businesses, real estate, and art; and how the author and other members of his family have spent years trying to recover the stolen art. It’s not just that they had to locate the art, much of the book is how generations of the family have had to fight to get it returned. The restitution stops at art but for me the larger question is how have the real estate and family business not also been returned.

Goodman starts before WWI with how the Gutmann family built the Dresdner Bank headquartered in Germany with branches throughout Europe. He explains how his great-grandfather’s generation was bringing his grandfather’s generation into the leadership of the bank and also collecting art. By collecting art I mean more than any art collecting I have ever heard of, like generations bought hundreds of paintings, silver, sculptures, jewelry, pottery/porcelain, furniture, and clocks (including the Orpheus clock) they appreciated all over Europe. Then between WWI and WWII Goodman’s grandfather settled his family in Holland, anticipating it would be neutral during a future war. In 1933 the Nazis took over or Aryanized the Dresdner Bank. In 1940 they invaded Holland and in 1941 they targeted his family’s art collection, what was in Holland and spread out across Europe for safekeeping.

Goodman shares their family story through the perspective of what his father had saved and spent his searching for. Simon Goodman and his brother Nick didn’t know their family history as art collectors until they went through all of their father’s things after his death. Their father Bernard Goodman was in England and lost contact with his parents during WWII. He and his sister Lilli didn’t get to see each other or find out that their parents had died and all their art had been taken until after the war. In the years after WWII the father Bernard Goodman had a family and a job, but he quietly spent the rest of his life looking for his family’s treasures.

The postwar governments of countries once occupied by the Germans were afraid that once restitution started, there would be no end. My father, like so many survivors, was officially shunned after the war because the authorities knew if they followed the problem to its ultimate conclusion, almost the entire population would be involved. Not only had many art dealers, curators, and directors of major Dutch museums actively collaborated with the Germans, but virtually the entire population of the Netherlands, just like that of Germany, had been complicit to the systematic robbing of the Jews.From my grandfather’s Botticelli and Hispano-Suiza sedan down to the brooms and brushes in the kitchen–Jewish clothes, books, furniture, apartments, jewelry, shops, cars, businesses, bicycles, everything, including the pots and pans, had been divided among a willing population. By allowing entire countries to be accessories to the greatest crime in history, the Nazis knew that everybody would also have to be part of the greatest cover-up. (Goodman, 2015, p. 236)

Simon Goodman’s father and aunt actually found some of their family’s art after the war that had been returned to Holland by the Monuments Men of the US Army. However, in 1954 the Dutch government only offered to return what the family would pay for. With the limited money they had (since the family business and bank accounts had been stolen and their parents had been killed) they bought a small portion of  it back. They spent years looking but mostly not finding the rest of the stolen art. Bernard Goodman’s sons Simon and Nick took up the search once they put the story together.

Once Simon and Nick Goodman started looking they began finding art in museums and other people’s collections, but there were no laws yet about restitution. One thing the Nazis did is they would force people to sign that they had sold their art to them and then if they gave them any money at all it would be in accounts the Nazis controlled. So they could say this art was legally bought even though they killed everyone they “bought” the art from. Other people would forge or hide a painting’s true history when they sold or donated it. As they identified stolen items the Goodman family started hiring lawyers and speaking to the press so they could highlight what was happening. Over years of work they started getting their art back. They had to pay lawyers to represent them and so often had to sell what was recovered to pay all their attorney fees. They kept going and as more was recovered they would divide the proceeds among the many heirs and use some of the income to recover more. Also, art restitution became better understood over the years of their searching and they had more cooperation from galleries and the Dutch government by the end of the story. In 2002 over 200 pieces were returned to the Goodman family. At that point there was enough art for the author’s generation and even his Aunt Lilli to keep some of the art in their own homes. It’s fascinating, and the Goodman family continues its search today.

The art is amazing, treasured for its sentimental value, and that it belonged to the family members who died. It’s extremely important, but what about the family business and homes? The story includes the taking over of the the Fritz and Louise Gutmann family home in Holland called Bosbeek.

Not until 1950 did the Dutch authorities officially determine what should have been obvious: that the seizure and sale of the Bosbeek estate had been forced by the Nazis, and therefore illegal, and that Bernard and Lili were the rightful heirs. Sadly, there was no legal way to avoid the unconscionable penalties that came attached with this modicum of justice. The title to the estate came burdened with much dubious debt, such as wartime tax bills and mortgages, along with various liens and other legal encumbrances…This new Kafkaesque ruling ensured that my family would only own Bosbeek, once again, for a regrettable short time. At the end of 1950 Bosbeek had to be sold to the sitting tenant. The new owners, the Catholic Congregation of the Sisters of Providence, turned the manor house into an insane asylum and later a retirement home for elderly nuns. (Goodman, 2015, p. 189)

Without the family bank that had been their income they didn’t have the money to catch it up so they had to sell it. This estate was sold to pay the debts the state charged during a time in which the owners’ business was overtaken by the same people who killed them. It seems like the same reasons for why the art has been returned would also mean the real estate should be returned or some form of restitution should be made.


The family business was also clearly stolen from the Guttman family. In writing about a trip back to Berlin for a bank anniversary the author and his family attended:

The many speeches extolled the influences on German life and the economy that had been brought about by the now-combined Dresdner and Commerzbank. The dark period between 1931 and 1945 was barely touched on–how the Dresdner Bank, which had essentially been a Jewish bank, became the bank of choice for the SS. (During the Nuremberg trials, the chairman of the board of the Aryanized bank was sentenced to seven years in prison.) To the modern Dresdner’s credit, in 2006 they published an exhaustive four-volume history, The Dresdner Bank in the Third Reich…Cameramen were there to take our picture next to a copy of the bust of Eugen, which was in the lobby. The original bust, by Hugo Lederer, had been smashed to the ground when the Brownshirts had stormed into the Berlin headquarters in May 1933–that fateful day when they began burning books in the Opernplatz just in front of Dresdner Bank. (Goodman, 2015, pp. 308-310)

Nazis stole the family bank along with all the family’s art, and many of their lives. They removed them from their homes and took their real estate. While much of the art has been returned it has taken years of discovering and then proving that it should be returned. To me the next chapter of this family’s story should be how the new owners of the bank and real estate (spread throughout Europe) make restitution to the Gutmann/Goodman family.


In case you want to see more about the land and business:

Here is a link to a satellite image of the family estate I found using the latitude and longitude: Bosbeek

Here is a link (in Dutch) to a wikipedia article about the estate: Bosbeek Estate

The Dresdner Bank was merged with the Commerzbank: Commerzbank

More information about the bank’s history can be found here: Eugen-Gutmann-Gesellschaft


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