Romane zum NS-Kunstraub liegen auf einem Tisch
Nazi-looted cultural property

Provenance research at the poolside

Uwe Fleckner’s first novel (and the Nazi-looted art thriller as a literary genre)
Susanne Meyer-Abich

Even long before the Washington Principles, the subject of cultural property seized as a result of persecution did occasionally appear in popular literature. In view of a new publication that has just come out in this genre – and without raising any claim to completeness – a few examples will be briefly presented here.

One early highlight was US author Frank McDonald’s novel Provenance (1979), whose plot unfolds with pace and panache in the classic style of the era: set against the backdrop of the international art trade and its locales, stunningly beautiful women drop their towels, sinister Corsicans carry out contract killings, and protagonists are chauffeured to Claridge’s in Rolls-Royces. The plot centres on the loss of an important art collection during the Nazi era due to the complicity of a collaborating art dealer family – whose real-life counterpart is easily identified as the Wildenstein family (though the latter omitted to take legal action against publication of the book at the time, possibly in the hope that it would soon be forgotten). McDonald’s well-written debut novel is still worth reading, not least because his underlying research is sound; it is still available at second-hand bookstores. There is little to suggest what motivated McDonald to write the book. The only indication is a far-flung review by Carol Felsenthal dating back to 1987 which can be found online: this describes the story as resulting from a chance discovery during a stay in Europe, which subsequently led to several years of research.

Meanwhile Peter Watson has been in the business of art market thrillers for a very long time – and is still going strong. His novel Stones of Treason (1991) also draws on Nazi-looted property as its background, though in this case it serves more to condense the plot than to significantly advance the action. Here, Nazi-looted art is merely a useful literary cipher for the opacity and dark machinations of a market that to this day is often portrayed in literature, film and popular culture as a murky playground for the rich and beautiful.

The same applies to The Soldier in the Wheatfield (1998) by British author and auction house expert on Impressionist art, Philip Hook, who has written a number of novels that take Nazi-looted art as their backdrop and plot driver. The author’s expertise in matters of art history and the art market is evident in every detail, but unfortunately the female characters in particular remain rather colourless, while the cultural property theft itself is little more than a backdrop. Incidentally, this reviewer still regards Optical Illusions (1993) as Hook’s most readable book: it deals with bizarre autobiographical experiences from Hook’s earlier career as an auctioneer, although here the plot has nothing to do with the Nazi era.

The same cannot be said of Michael Pye’s The Pieces from Berlin (2003). Inspired by the story of the dealer Andreina Torré-Schwegler – a theme first taken up by Swiss historian Thomas Buomberger and currently the subject of more detailed provenance research – it is about a dazzling figure who acquired a mass of objects during the Nazi era and traded successfully with them in Switzerland after the war. Her excuses (“I only helped people, […] I tried to protect all the beautiful things that people had”, p. 264) sound authentic, and the moral dilemma she faced appears genuine. In provenance research, and in families too, it is not uncommon to come across precisely this type of justification of wrongdoing. Strictly speaking this book doesn’t quite fit into the genre of the crime novel where a thrilling plot takes centre stage: it is better categorised as a literary variation on the theme.

This is also where Barbara Bongartz’ Perlensamt (2009) belongs, since it is only nominally a crime thriller. Linguistically rather florid (at the time of publication, one critic got rather upset at the book’s literary mannerisms), atmospherically detailed and dense, the book deliberately sews confusion about what is real and what is true between the characters. Here, Nazi-looted art serves as an enigmatic background with the figure of Otto Abetz as its historical core – the German ambassador in France from 1940 to 1944, Abetz was involved in art looting.

Daniel Silva is a consummate professional of the genre. Among his numerous excellently researched art world thrillers about Israeli ex-secret agent and restorer Gabriel Allon, who looks as good holding a Beretta as he does a marten brush, The Rembrandt Affair is one that particularly explores the theme of Nazi-looted art. Here the work of art in question is instantly at the centre of the action because a restorer has been shot and the painting stolen (something that would never have happened to Allon himself). Allon traces the provenance, encountering a series of excellently drawn characters in the process. And here, the painting is not just an anecdote in art history but the price of a human life.

Incidentally, the colonial restitution thriller has now arrived on the market, too: In Xavier-Marie Bonnot’s Le Pays oublié du temps (2011 in the original French and 2012 in English translation as The Voice of the Spirits, the German translation of 2015 is entitled Die Melodie der Geister), Marseille inspector Michel de Palma takes on the case of a murdered ethnologist. The atmosphere of the city of Marseille as recreated in the novel is modelled on Jean-Claude Izzo. The motive for the murder is directly linked to the victim’s past as a researcher and collector, and the eerie effect of the description of the objects from African societies of origin in the victim’s gloomily furnished study adds to the goosebump effect.

The latest Nazi-looted art thriller to appear is the recently published debut novel by art historian Uwe Fleckner, Im Schatten der Blauen Pferde (2023). The story revolves around what is probably the most famous painting to have been lost during the Nazi era: Franz Marc’s The Tower of Blue Horses. The art historian protagonist – whose investigative nature is made abundantly clear by his surname Kisch, a reference to the famous Austrian reporter Egon Kisch – dedicates his life to the obsessive search for this painting, one of the reasons he has recently been ousted by his girlfriend. The novel opens with artist Franz Marc’s delirious ruminations in the trenches before Verdun, from which we cut to present-day Los Angeles. This is where the obsessed and professionally rather jaded art historian meets a female provenance researcher at the Getty Institute. The encounter is more than predictable: the protagonist’s virile gaze meets this object of desire (complete with red, body-hugging designer dress), the woman’s “thoughtfulness” making her “even more attractive”. Here, too, the female figures remain rather lacking in contours – apart from those of a physical nature.

Many of the passages dealing with the events of art history are compelling, and as someone who has spent years researching the period, the author’s expertise is beyond question. The novel also breathes life into historical figures involved in the removal of modern works from German museums: these particularly include Carl Einstein, on whom Fleckner has published scholarly papers, and ardent Nazi Wolfgang Willrich. Nonetheless, the deadly threat to those suffering persecution remains vague, while the view of Göring and his henchmen is slightly distanced: in their stupidity and lack of cultural appreciation, they tend to come over as cartoonish plebs. Genuine terror would be more appropriate to the events as they really happened, but the author opts for the security of a present-day perspective – he can afford to look down on his characters. What is more, “degenerate” art is less well suited as a basis for an exciting plot: when a totalitarian regime forces museums to conform politically by removing works of art and selling them, it seems to be more a question of survival than aesthetic judgement. Even if provenance research is presented in this novel as art history discovering its moral conscience, this is hardly sufficient to place it on an equal footing with scholarly endeavour.

A dense catalogue of names from the world of art history is included so as to ensure the plot is clearly contextualised from a historical point of view: almost no one is left out – from the German exiles in California to the entire cultural scene of the Weimar Republic. The following historical figures are among those who appear with their real names: Franz Marc, Ludwig Justi, Maria Marc, G.F. Reber, Carl Einstein, Wolfgang Willrich, Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Ziegler, Eberhard Hanfstaengl, Paul Ortwin Rave, Charlotte Weidler, Ludwig Meidner, Arnold Waldschmidt, Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Josef Angerer, Marlene Dietrich, Galka Scheyer, Erich Maria Remarque, Lette Valeska, Harpo Marx, Leopold Stokowski, Ruth Maitland, Jules Furthmann, John Cage, Walter Andreas Hofer and Karl Buchholz, with numerous others mentioned in addition.

The book is above all a tribute to the Getty Institute, the camaraderie among researchers and the world of the US West Coast. In spite of a touch of irony where the bubble of experts are shown meeting by the pool, the Getty and its research culture are idealised. The author portrays the historical protagonists and art history vividly and with genuine interest, but he has his difficulties with emotional and subjective fictional narrative elements (when a thought shoots through someone’s head “like a bullet” or the shower water apparently replaces Mr. Kisch’s suppressed tears over moments of failure in life). Does a table full of bottles necessarily have to remind us of Giorgio Morandi? This results in rather wooden dialogue, too (“Do you love driving in Los Angeles as much as I do?” or “It’s strange, but I feel like we’ve known each other forever”).

When a scholar publishes his first novel relatively late in life and draws on his specialist expertise in doing so, there’s one thing that we can certainly expect: he is bound to have taken great pleasure in writing it. One can only wish him well. The clever twist in the plot about the lost masterpiece (not a spoiler) is certainly well rooted in the author’s realm of scholarship: the picture is ultimately appropriated by art itself. But only the most academic of readers will be on the edge of their seat at that point.