Conversation with Simon Goodman | HistoryNet MENU

Conversation with Simon Goodman

By Michael Dolan
8/7/2016 • World War II Magazine

Simon Goodman is on a quest to recover art the Nazis took from his family along with their lives. He is holding the treasured Orpheus Clock.

Simon Goodman grew up British and Anglican in 1950s London, the second son of a father who aged into a remote, lonely figure. Goodman and older brother Nick vaguely knew of their family’s lost fortunes and vanished art, but not until their father’s death in 1994 did the sons realize how large a fortune and how extraordinary an art collection—or that until the war, the family name had been Gutmann, and that the Gutmanns had been Jews. The brothers, with Simon in the lead, undertook to trace and recover their heritage, a massive task involving a catalogue of thousands of stolen pieces of art and bringing the first settled suit in a U.S. court to recover art stolen during the Nazi era. Simon recounts his quest in his recent book, The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis.

What is the Orpheus Clock and why make it the title of your book?

The clock is symbolic on many levels. The Orpheus Clock is the latest restoration to my family’s heritage and it’s a major Renaissance artifact. Fewer than a dozen exist, and this was one of the centerpieces of my great-grandfather’s collection of silver and gold objects. Its decorations symbolize science and nature and, of course, Orpheus, the mythical Greek poet who tried to bring his dead wife, Eurydice, back from the underworld. My great-grandfather Eugen bought the clock at auction in Paris in 1893. It had pride of place in the collection of art and objects Nazi officials and their accomplices stole from my grandparents in the 1940s before killing them and others in our family. To have the clock back is to reaffirm my family’s existence. This recovery marks a healing for a family that once lived in such enmity and silence that growing up in London I had cousins two miles away whom I never knew.

Your quest seems to have become a life’s work.

I am passionate about this. I have several cases on the back burner—in Rotterdam, in Augsburg. Two sculptures are on hold that we caught at auction. We keep finding works in France, in Germany, in America, and new Nazi art dealers are coming to light thanks to online searches. The process involves a vast amount of negotiation and paperwork.

Before you began pursuing your family’s treasures, you were in the music business.

In the late 1960s my brother Nick was working at Island Records. He got me hired to “sleeve”—insert the vinyl into the cardboard—Traffic’s first LP. I had a grasp of German and French and Italian so when foreign distributors phoned, my coworkers would call out, “Simon!” and hand me the receiver. I moved up to breaking performers like Jethro Tull, Free, and Cat Stevens. From Island, I shifted to being a distributor; I had my own companies. I came to LA to collect a debt and saw how the guy who owed me money
was living while I was living hand to mouth, so I exported myself to California. So did Nick, who’s an art director specializing in TV commercials. I was in the music business until the 1990s.

Has living in LA affected your search?

It’s an advantage; the Getty Museum Research Center here has a huge archive of art gallery records. In the 1970s, when art dealers like one in The Hague closed, the Getty bought the files and catalogues, which are troves of information unavailable elsewhere. As I was going through papers from that Dutch establishment, even before the museum digitized them, I found letters from my grandfather, Fritz Gutmann, writing to inquire about when the Nazis would be delivering his Ausweis—his visa—which, of course, never came. He died in Theresienstadt and my grandmother at Auschwitz.

Every father is a mystery to his sons—yours, perhaps more so.

My dad, Bernard, was fairly jovial when I was young. He was often away, and I always looked forward to the stamps he would bring me. He was quite vigorous, still playing tennis in his 70s, but as he got older he was glum and sullen. My mother finally had enough and left, which left Dad even more alone. When I was in my teens, we had little to say to one another, but later he would visit me in LA and we would sit in silence. I got something from that, although he mystified me. Once, we were in San Diego in a museum in Balboa Park and he came upon a painting by Frans Hals, and froze. He was visibly shaken. “That painting belonged to us,” he said.

How did things come clear when your dad died?

Boxes arrived at Nick’s house containing our dad’s correspondence with governments, with art dealers, with galleries and museums. He was trying to reclaim his heritage—our heritage—but, apart from a few initial successes, met with rejection. Opening those boxes awed us. As soon as we realized what it was, we said, “This is huge. This is much more than we ever imagined.” Having gotten out of the music business, I was in a position to take up the pursuit that had so frustrated my father. I wanted to do justice for my grandparents and their family, which had been almost erased. I came to see how cheated my father must have felt by life. He had had everything—growing up in a beautiful house among beautiful things, going to Cambridge, captaining the ice hockey team, and all that—and it all was taken away, along with his parents. And when he tried to retrieve what was lost, he had door upon door slammed in his face. I wanted to see those doors open.

That meant coming to terms with what your family had—and lost.

I always had a ghostly image of the preceding generations, but I never knew that my family started the second-largest bank in Germany, Dresdner Bank, which today
in Frankfurt occupies an entire block. Genealogy has become one of my hobbies, and through it I have found what my family and other German Jews contributed to that country’s growth: banks, department stores, publishing houses, coal mines. My ancestors’ bank funded Germany’s original electrical grid.

You found an eyewitness account of your grandfather’s murder. Kapos beat him to death in a scene you describe with hair-
raising intimacy. How did gaining that knowledge affect you?

I’m most proud of piecing that together, which gave me some equivalent of resolution. I felt at peace in showing what happened to my grandparents, which had always been a mystery to me and would have remained so unless I told the story. I wanted to make this not the story of stolen art through the point of view of curators and art historians, but of the victims who were robbed and murdered.

 

Your book is a compelling page-turner. Earlier in life, did you imagine yourself a writer?

No, although early on I did try to tell this story in several forms, including a screenplay-like approach with imagined dialogue. But I realized the only way to tell it was to stick to the facts.

You chronicle chasing down several works, including one painting in the hands of a fellow LA resident. What is your approach?

I have learned to focus on what is worth doing and doable. The Internet makes an enormous difference; everything is visible now, unlike in my father’s situation. The more I dig, the more I realize that there is still so much digging to do. Perhaps as much as a third of the family collection is still at large. Valuable china, important eighteenth-century tapestries, and several paintings. Everything we are talking about is of museum quality, and beautiful.

What was the most surprising thing about your search?

Realizing that many of the objects and paintings we were after were right here in the United States. Our dad had always figured that much of the stolen art had wound up in Switzerland or in the Soviet Bloc. He didn’t think to look for it in New England, or Chicago, or Los Angeles.

 

This interview was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

, , , , , , , , , , ,