What was one of the pivotal moments in your search? The first pivotal moment was receiving the boxes from my father’s estate. Until then I virtually had no idea of the art collection and my father’s work to have it returned. The other pivotal moment would have to be finding a colour photo of the Degas landscape I was looking for in a recent exhibition catalogue. I didn’t know until that moment that what I was doing; looking for missing and stolen paintings, was even possible. I had only ever seen black and white photos of this piece. In the catalogue it had the name of the present owner and the location, Chicago – it was in The States and there I was, in The States! This was a big turning point.
Are you in contact with any other descendants that are doing similar kind of work? Yes, quite a few. They have mixed success with having artworks returned. Every case is very complicated. It’s been 70 years since the end of the war and many documents are missing. I am lucky that I now have a pretty comprehensive history of our collection – that’s what I’ve been working on. My father had to do the inventories by memory. I now have access to the internet and catalogues.
What break-throughs have been made since you started your search for your family’s missing artworks? Firstly the Washington Conference which was not law, but a State Dept. initiative with representatives from all World War II countries who had expertise on national collections and museums. The attendees agreed in principal to re-examining their policies and collections, but this has not necessarily meant that they have followed through in practise! The biggest change would have to be that the 2 big auction houses have changed their policies and now they both have Vice Presidents who are very skilled in restitution. These auction houses are not only a mine full of information, but have become very helpful. We are often in contact with each other. They phone me if something comes up for sale which they now know has been in my family’s collection at some stage.
What would you most like to ask your father? Eventually my father must have given up hope of having the pieces in the art collection returned. I’d like to ask what was the final point that wore him out and made him, from that point onwards, a very quiet and withdrawn man.
What do you think your father would be most surprised about? He’d be surprised that we got anything back at all. When he got things back he had to pay for them! We now have had pieces returned, shipping costs paid for and I have had apologies from government officials. He’d be surprised about all of that.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? Writing this book has been rewarding on a personal level – I have been able to reconnect not only parts of the art collection, but my family and their history; I have discovered and documented parts of my family’s history that I didn’t know existed. It’s had a really unifying effect on my family. It’s wearing, but life-affirming and it’s rewarding however small the finds are. I can be proud of my work.
How much more of the your art collection are you looking for? My father found about one third of the collection, we have had another third of the collection settled or returned since 1999, so that leaves approximately one third of the collection to find. This last third contains at least 20 major paintings.
Looking back, which experiences, jobs and personality traits do you think have really helped you in your search and in writing this book? I was in the international music industry and my job was to find rare things around the world. So I think that has carried over to what I am doing now – I am determined to find those rare things! In a way I was training for what I do now. Also my dad took us to art galleries all over the place when we were little, so I was always around art. I also notice the details and connections. This helped me connect the dots when I was looking for a sculpture and remembered seeing it in folders in 2 different countries.
What gives you joy? A lot. Making my dear old aunt happy. She is finally getting the respect she deserves. People listen to her and they want to know her story. Giving her part of the settlement gives me joy. Of course, it’s too little and too late, but I still make her happy and I put a smile on her face.
What are you working on next? I have had several cases on backburners whilst writing this book. I will now get back to these and chase them up and I’ve got lots of clues!
Read my review of ‘The Orpheus Clock’ here.