08 December 2015

Lessons from "The Orpheus Clock"

An opinion piece by Angelina Giovani

The Orpheus Clock was one of my favorite books of 2015. Since the book came out last August, it has received great reviews on ‘various online news outlets’ (Publishers’ Weekly, The Independent, New York Post) by people who do not seem to have read the entire book as some facts indicate, almost all of which refer to the author having produced a very good detective story. Other reviews failed to point out is the importance of this book and what we can learn from it.

Orpheus Clock
One does not need to be a claimant seeking restitution of looted art or doing research on one’s own family history to learn from this book. If we strip the plot of the names of individuals involved, we are left with an outline of information that researchers need to search for when conducting their quest. Despite the fact that the story told in The Orpheus Clock is a personal one, its lessons are simple and very useful. 

For instance, this is what I learned:

You do not need to be a trained provenance researcher to do good research and achieve results. This is quite a relief since there is a general lack of provenance research training worldwide and academic programs focused on provenance issues are so few that you only need half the fingers of one hand to count them. Simon Goodman, the author of The Orpheus Clock, has neither a background in art history nor in international law. As with most research projects, his journey began by following his own curiosity and taking the time to read documents that he had uncovered in boxes left behind by his late father. Taking the time to actually engage with a document and understand what it is about is the first challenge. For a novice, it might take longer, but nowadays one can google one’s way into the unknown, so in theory ignorance is no longer an excuse.

Very early on in The Orpheus Clock, we learn how important it is to be realistic when deciding how to organize and conduct research. Depending on the number of people involved in the process, one may have to follow different paths. In Simon Goodman’s case, the starting point for him and his brother Nick was to investigate works by a different artist, Degas and Renoir respectively. Although the impressionist works stolen from their family were part of the same collection, they had taken different journeys, hence the importance of looking at each work individually. As we follow Simon Goodman’s research we become aware that objects ended up in certain places for a logical reason.

This brings us to the next point, which is the importance of sharing what we learn from our research. It is understandable that most researchers are reluctant to share particular details and finds on cases in which they are involved, but the vast amount of information that is accumulated during the research process can be helpful to others. Simon Goodman addresses this point when he talks about coming across objects and information that helped other families involved in similar quests for justice—restitution of their looted objects.

Throughout The Orpheus Clock, one question kept coming up: "Is it easier to research something when it belongs to you?” The answer is probably: yes. Although the level of difficulty has nothing to do with personal involvement, emotions are a different thing. It is reasonable to assume that if you are personally invested in the object, it will affect your level of motivation. However, this should not make a difference in the final outcome of the research.

What does make a difference though, is the kind of object you are seeking. It is important to be realistic from the very beginning of what is possible and what is not. Looking for an Impressionist work or an Old Master painting, can be viewed as a more reasonable undertaking, than doing research on a piece of jewelry, on silverware and furniture. We have to accept the fact that some things are irrevocably lost and the inability to locate them has nothing to do with our research skills. It is no coincidence that following Simon Goodman’s research, the first cases that he and his family won involved some of the most famous pieces in the Guttman collection.

To conclude, it is important to focus on the ultimate goal of the exercise in provenance, which is matching the object to its owner. We have to make sure that the object’s history is told in its entirety and relieve it of the ‘looted’ label that stains its name, while giving the rightful owner the ability and freedom to decide its destiny.