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How we took on the Nazi Art Masters… and won: From Auschwitz to a grand British auction house… one family’s amazing journey to avenge their looted grandfather

The dusty boxes that arrived at my brother Nick’s home were packed with our late father’s papers from his last 50 years. There were long-forgotten receipts and expired British passports with German visa stamps – showing the Nazi eagle clutching a swastika.

But we became entranced by yellowing documents indicating that the art collection once owned by grandparents we had never known was spectacular – scores of works by artists such as Degas and Renoir. There were references to Hitler and Göring, and to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt concentration camps. 

My father’s archive set my brother and me on a quest that would pit us against respected art institutions and collectors who seemed not to want to know about the grim history of the works they dealt in…

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Lost – and found: The Degas landscape Paysage taken from Simon Goodman’s grandfather during the war and rediscovered in the US

When I was growing up in post-war London my friends’ parents talked about the war constantly, but it was off-limits in my family. My mother Dee and father Bernard were silent on the subject. Nor did Pa ever speak of his parents, Fritz and Louise, who I gathered had somehow ‘died in the war’.

Pa, a loving but reserved man, did not seem to have a regular job. Instead, he spent most of his time locked in his study. I later learned he was corresponding with various lawyers and government officials.

He travelled a lot and would sometimes take Nick and me to France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, and once to Germany – although he insisted on driving across the country without stopping (except once) for the loo.

Pa was primarily interested in visiting an endless succession of art museums, rushing from gallery to gallery, scanning the walls and then quickly moving on. It was as if he was looking for something and not finding it.

There was one exception. We once took a trip from Los Angeles to the San Diego Museum of Art, where my father gazed for ages at the Portrait Of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa by Frans Hals. He told me that his father had once owned this painting. He sounded bitter but would say no more, and I didn’t ask. It seemed like ancient history – sad, but with little bearing on my life.

Eventually, through snippets and vague asides, I began to understand the basic outlines of my father’s family story. He had been born into one of the wealthiest banking dynasties in Germany, the Gutmanns. My grandfather and grandmother, a baroness and a member of another Jewish banking family, brought up my father and his younger sister, Lili, in Bosbeek, a luxurious estate in Holland, where they had presided over an enormous fortune and a fabulous collection of Old Masters, Impressionists, and Renaissance silver and gold works of art.


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