Thumbing through an art catalogue in America in 1995, Simon Goodman was stunned to catch sight of a Dégas. It was not the quality of Landscape with Smokestacks that made his eyes widen. He had spotted one of many paintings that the Nazis had lifted off his grandfather, which had never been returned. Now in the possession of an American billionaire, the battle to get the Dégas recognised as part of the lost treasure trove of the Gutmann family forms one part of an extraordinary tale of the rise and fall of a German Jewish banking dynasty.
The Gutmanns started out as "court Jews" who serviced the financial needs of Germany's multitude of princely courts. A handful made it big after 1871, when Bismarck united Germany, after which money poured into the new imperial capital of Berlin. Goodman's great-grandpa Eugen rode the wave, moving the Dresdner bank to Berlin, building a palace in Potsdam and becoming the confidant of royalty. One of a number of wealthy Jews hovering on the edge of the old Prussian elite, Eugen did what many of his peers did to win establishment admiration – he amassed art on a grand scale.
The Gutmann collection, continued by Eugen's son, Friedrich, included works by Bosch, Fra Bartolomeo, Renoir and many others. Rivalling it in splendour was a mass of Renaissance silver, including a fabulous 16th-century "Orpheus clock", so named after the relief of Orpheus on the side.
But gold turned to dust in 1933 when the Nazis took power and "Aryanised" – grabbed – the assets of wealthy Jews. Friedrich fled from Germany while there was time. But Holland was not far enough and the saddest chapter of the book details the wartime years when he was trapped in his Dutch home, watching the Nazis strip it, after they had coerced him into "selling" much of what remained of the collection for pitiful sums. These enforced sales gained Friedrich and his wife no reprieve. Both were murdered in 1944. Their son, Goodman's father, safe in England, spent much of the rest of his life fruitlessly hunting the lost goods.
Anyone who has seen the film Woman in Gold, about Maria Altmann's similar struggle to find looted family art, will have a good idea of where this book is heading from chapter one. Still, this story of how a stubborn man took on the cultural bureaucrats and their culture of amnesia has its own twists and deserves to be told.