The transfer of works of art from vanquished to victor is as old as warfare itself.”
. . . Lynn Nicolas, author of Rape of Europa
I open with this quote because it so aptly describes the events that began in the art world long before the outbreak of the second World War. Hitler’s dream of a pure Germanic Empire included works of art and he determinedly set about purging those pieces he considered unsuitable.
“Entartete Kunst,” German for degenerate art
What was unsuitable? Works that were “unfinished” or abstract, that did not depict reality. Vasily Kandinsky. Works by Jews. Camille Pisarro. Works by leftists. George Grosz. Degenerate art they were called and exhibitions of them were set up to show the German people what not to like and admire. Shows like “Entartete Kunst” in Munich in 1937 drew thousands.
Hermann Goering was one of the first in Hitler’s regime to recognize the commercial value of some of these works of art and amassed thousands of works for his own personal collection. His “agent” took Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” purged from a museum in Frankfurt, to sell in Holland. The painting eventually found its way to New York and was sold for $82.5 million.
Alfred Rosenberg, a Nazi ideologue, set up the ERR, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, to systematically collect – confiscate or steal, to be more precise – works of art and artifacts from state museums, citizens and Jews, in particular. Millions of pieces.
As the war came to an end, the Allies closed in. With them were a handful of art-specialists called “monument men.” Their job was to locate and salvage these precious works of art from Germany, Italy and France. Every day these officers would find thousands of pieces on the verge of destruction. They saved what they could; still many disappeared through looting.
The fate of thousands of objects is still unknown, even today. One of those precious pieces is the subject of my book, Deadly Provenance. It is Van Gogh’s painting, “Still Life: Vase with Oleanders,” which vanished in 1944. Was it destroyed or is it hidden in someone’s secret art collection? In someone’s garage waiting for a sale, perhaps? Will it ever surface to please the world once more?
Can science and technology assist in authenticating the painting if ever it is found? And if so, will it be restored to its rightful owner? Provenance will tell.
I am about to embark on my seventh novel. (Five books are currently in the marketplace, number six has been entered in the Malice Domestic competition.)
As you may know, I write historical mysteries that are solved today with modern science (had to combine my science museum background with my love of history!) I’ve been often asked how I choose the topics for my book and the simple answer is this. I select a time period and a real event in history to construct a mystery around. In earlier books, I’ve used the Civil War, the Salem witch trials, the Nazi confiscation of art, and the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City in 1911, as backdrops.
The modern story lines utilize current technology to resolve the ancient crimes: digital photography, arson forensics, scientific techniques for art authentication, and questioned document analysis, are examples.
For my next mystery, I take the reader back to the Spanish Inquisition, a turbulent time in world history, where heretics were forced to convert to Christianity or exiled from Spain and Portugal.
My main character will be Frank Mead, a New York City homicide detective who has appeared in each of my books. He will have a new romantic interest, Rachel Bejarano, a research librarian at the NYC Public Library, who is on a quest to track down a mysterious necklace that is left to her by her Sephardic ancestors. (Rachel appears briefly in book six, Hart of Madness.) Together they trace her ancestors to a small town in Spain (Cordoba, perhaps?) and the ancient Jewish quarter.
However, murder and mayhem stalks them every step of the way, from Madrid, where they start their investigation, to the glorious palace, Alhambra, in Granada.
I’m sure you are chuckling as you read this, thinking, “Ahh, the writer gets to take a trip to Spain.” Indeed. Ain’t it grand?
Now the work begins:
Create the historic and modern story lines.
Draw the character sketches.
Research, research, research the locations, the history, the authentic characters of the time, the language, the food, the clothing, et al of 15th Century Spain.
For me, this is the most exciting time in the writing process: molding the essence of an idea into a rich and dramatic story. Writers, you know exactly what I mean.
I welcome ideas and thoughts about your process.
154 years ago last July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.
I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure. I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene. But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.
I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly. All other characters and events are real history. This letter might well have been written at the time.
July 3, 1863
My Dearest Sara,
I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed. I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended. But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.
Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured. The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated. Finally, victory, and an important one.
It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.
I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm. But don’t worry. The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain. Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.
I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields. The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet. I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.
The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace. I rely on my apprentice more. I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people. Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains. I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.
Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days. I look forward to working with them.
Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera. Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived. Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves. Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only: “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.” It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.
On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric. There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end. But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle. Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded. I doubt this town will ever be the same.
Tomorrow is July 4. I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.
I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.
Yours ever truly,
While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive. Ideas welcome.
In researching my new book, I came across a wealth of information and images about the New York City Public Library at Bryant Park, 475 Fifth Ave. I thought readers would be interested in some fun facts about this incredible domicile of history, literature, and education.
Originally formed by the consolidation of the Tilden Trust and the Astor and Lenox libraries in 1895, the cornerstone of the (now) Stephen A. Schwarzman Building was laid in 1902.
A Registered National Historical Landmark, the architecture is Beaux-Arts style and was dedicated by President Taft in 1911. The two marble lions welcoming visitors in the front were named Patience and Fortitude in the 1930s by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, for the qualities he felt New Yorkers would need to survive the economic depression. These names have withstood the test of time. Patience guards the south side of the Library’s steps; Fortitude the north. These mascots are officially trademarked by the Library.
A few fun facts came to light as I researched this marvelous resource.
- The NYPL Research Libraries have a unique classification system. Originally, the first director, Dr. John Shaw Billings organized the system, but it was not easy to use. Since the 1950s, books in many parts of the of the collection have been shelved according to size. I kid you not!
- The original building was fueled by coal and needed more than twenty tons a day. So much ash was produced it had to be carted away daily.
- Library employees once ran a General Store in the basement. It opened in 1920 and carried everything from food goods, tobacco products, sewing supplies and general merchandise. Library “stores” have made a comeback, as you are no doubt aware, but the goods sold today are “book-related” for the most part.
- After Pearl Harbor, the most valuable manuscripts and volumes were moved to bank vaults around the city. 12,000 items, valued at $10 million, were temporarily moved to a secret location 250 miles away. Sounds like a book in here somewhere.
The Library has been visited by countless celebrities such as: Norman Mailer, Jacqueline Kennedy, Princess Grace, Somerset Maugham, Marlene Dietrich, Tom Wolfe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and E.L Doctorow, to name a few.
Now that I reside in Vermont, I am only a four-hour drive from this rich collection to research my writings. Yahoo!
A few years ago, my third book, Deadly Provenance, 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.
Your thoughts welcome.
It was three in the morning. A slight tremor shook the windows. The doors began to rattle in their frames. The bed seemed to move. Now the windows were banging against the shutters and a strange howling sounded in the air.
I leaped up and ran to the French doors of our room at the Hotel Tramontano in Sorrento, Italy. I knew what was happening. Mt. Vesuvius was erupting, just as it did in 79 AD, when it brought Pompeii and Herculaneum to its knees. What a story!
I threw open the doors and peered through a curtain of mist, across the Bay of Naples to the majestic volcano. Nothing. Not a wisp of smoke nor a glow of lava trails. I was peculiarly disappointed.
My husband stepped outside to join me on the veranda. He had just called the front desk. “Just a strong wind.” Combined with old windows and doors and perhaps my sub-conscious wish to be Pliny the Younger and witness the infamous eruption. Nothing. Bummer.
Earlier this same day we had traveled by train from Naples and my husband had been pickpocketed. Now, of course, Naples is the pickpocket capital of the world. But how could that happen to us? It only happens to others. Well, we lost our credit cards and cash (fortunately, not our passports,) and spent hours on the phone with Visa when we arrived. Nice folks.
Not an auspicious start to a holiday in Italy. Maybe that was it. Instead of a mystery, I’d write a travel book: Misadventures in Italy. Uh uh. Stick to mysteries. How about an artifact newly discovered, buried under layers of excavation in Pompeii. A humerus bone that was only two hundred years old. How could it possibly be buried here along with remains almost 2,000 years old? Whose bone was it? A female, young, small, delicate with a knife wound slicing across the bone? Maybe a swath of fabric is found near the bone. How old could the material be? What about a tool or a bowl or utensil nearby?
Clues. Ahhh. More, more.
And what about Pliny, the Younger and Pliny the Elder? The life and times of Pompeiins, Napolitanos, Herculaneum— uh, ers, ites? People from Herculaneum. What a backdrop for a historical mystery. And forensics can help resolve the bone, fabric, bowl conundrum. (Maybe the forensics expert was pickpocketed on his way to the crime scene?)
Whether I write a mystery about Pompeii or not, the point is, so many of our experiences can be evolved into a full-fledged story with characters, events, descriptions, and rich background. Those incidents in our lives that are memorable are often traumatic when we live through them. Find the humor and spin them into a grand story.
I can laugh at the faux volcanic eruption of Vesuvius now. Trust me, it wasn’t funny at the time.