Art Theft on a Grand Scale

Art Theft on a Grand Scale

When my third book was published, I had originally titled it Provenance until a friend thought readers might confuse it with a city in Rhode Island.  Of course it is a mystery and contains several murders, so I decided to call it Deadly Provenance. The story revolves around the confiscation of art during WWII and a missing Van Gogh painting.  “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders” is an actual painting by Vincent, which disappeared around 1944, and is, in fact, still missing.

The research on this book provided so many possible avenues to explore, it was hard to know where to begin.  First, there was the Nazi confiscation of art: the logistics of stealing, storing and moving millions of pieces of precious artworks.  Next, what happened to all that displaced art?  How much was recovered and how?  How much is still missing?  Then there’s my world — the museum world.  How have museums been involved?  Have they helped or hindered the search for missing pieces of art?

Then there are the players.  An important character in the historic part of the book is Rose Valland, a woman whose heroic efforts during the war truly saved a great deal of artwork.  She is portrayed in Deadly Provenance as the heroine she truly was.  Like Rose, another real character in history is Hans van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire.  Van Meegeren, a Dutch painter, bamboozled the art world in the 40s with a series of false Vermeers.  Did he ever forge a van Gogh?  In my book he did.

There is the modern story, where the mystery is solved years later.  Protagonist, Maggie Thornhill, a digital photographer, must try to identify and authenticate the painting from a photograph.  Can it be done?  Has it ever been done?  What is the science of art authentication today?  How are x-rays, infrared and multi-spectral imaging used in scientific analysis?  Don’t freak. I won’t get into this too deeply here.

As mentioned in a former blog, I always visit the places I write about. During WWII, a great deal of art was stolen from Jews and other “undesirables” and stored in the Room of Martyrs at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris.  The museum is located on the west side of the Tuileries Gardens and is now a museum of Contemporary Art.  Visiting was a treat, although the “Room” is no longer there.  Most of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works originally housed there are now on display at the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, in an old converted railway station.

And last but central to the storyline, is Vincent van Gogh, the mad genius whose painting is lost, perhaps forever.  “Vase with Oleanders” is not typical of his vibrant colors, his wheat fields or his starry nights.  But there’s no doubt this is Vincent’s work, even if his signature wasn’t in the lower left corner of the painting.  Which it is.

The painting was owned by the Bernheim-Jeunes, a French Jewish family of art collectors.  When they realized their art was about to be confiscated by the Nazis, they hid their collection, including the Van Gogh, at a friend’s mansion – The Chateau de Rastignac, near Bordeaux.  Unfortunately, in 1944, the Nazis raided and looted the Chateau then burned it to the ground.  Was the Van Gogh trundled aboard a Nazi truck and whisked away?  Did a soldier steal it?  A civilian in the town?  Was it burned with the Chateau?

Today, there is still a great deal of interest in this subject and the world of art looting and theft.  I’ve spoken about it to a number of different audiences and each time I must update it because new information appears almost weekly in the news.  Lost paintings found, fought over by heirs in the courts, and, sometimes, won.  Like Maria Altmann and the portrait of her aunt, The Woman in Gold.

History can never remain solely in the past. Past events have a profound influence on the present and the future.  I believe they should.