06 October 2021

Review: Pauline Baer de Pérignon: The Vanished Collection

by Ori Z. Soltes 

Every time one might be inclined to suppose that the last page has been turned on the vast narrative of the Holocaust—and certainly of that chapter that deals with the Nazi plunder of cultural property—another book, and not merely another page, appears that adds another nuance or issue. 

One of the truisms of the multi-aspected genocide engineered by the Nazis is its complexity and its internal paradoxes, which magnified the characteristic of paradox that is endemic to humanity. The Nazis offered inherent contradictions between the mud-and-excrement chaos of the pre-death world that they prepared for their victims and both the carefully ordered manner in which that world operated and the spit-polish cleanliness that obsessed Hitler and his inner circle who shaped and governed it. 

One paradox resonates from the manner in which the population designated for extermination was defined—from whom property and particularly cultural artifacts were confiscated directly (for they had ceased to possess the right to own anything, according to the laws articulated in and beyond Nuremberg in 1935) or indirectly (by forced sales of art and other possessions at a fraction of their value). The same Alfred Rosenberg who would be put in charge of defining racial categories and their features (eyes, hair, nose, lips, intellect, emotion, and the like) in order to decided who would suffer which particular fate, when, and why, was subsequently charged with organizing an effective and far-reaching system of art plunder. Among the racial determinants for Jews was the clear conclusion that having a single Jewish grandparent was sufficient for one’s polluted bloodline to yield a one-way ticket to Auschwitz. 

Yet apparently—paradoxically—the Fuehrer might make exceptions if it served his needs: so the most successful art plunderer on Hitler’s behalf, Hildebrandt Gurlitt, in spite of his paternal grandmother’s having been Jewish, flourished. Hitler also gave a survival pass to his Jewish barber (who never took the opportunities he must have had to slit his master’s throat). And on the other hand, while the most concerted Nazi efforts directed toward cultural appropriation were aimed at Jews and Slavic states, survivors or their offspring and descendants (some of whom become claimants of cultural property) are sometimes not Jewish.

Pauline Baer de Perignon grew up in France as a Catholic. The engrossing book authored by this journalist, film-script writer and writing instructor began by happenstance: a passing comment from a cousin engaged in the art world, whom she hadn’t seen in years, followed by a piece of paper on which he had written down the names of a handful of works by great masters that had once belonged to her great-grandfather, and which—her cousin rather casually noted—had probably been stolen from him.

The narrative that unfolds interweaves two main issues. One is the story itself that begins to take shape: yet another case of a French collector—in this case, Jules Strauss was particularly well-known for his generous contributions to the Louvre of exquisite and suitable frames for a good number of its masterpieces—dispossessed of his cultural property; and how easily and conveniently that datum and its accompanying details were obliterated from the communal memory of the French art and culture world in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.

The other is the process through which, inch by inch, the author scaled the double territory of trying to understand what had happened to her great-grandfather’s collections—how to begin and deepen and broaden her research—and came to a deeper understanding of her own family identity and heritage.

Jules Strauss, we learn, while he directed pointed if quantitatively modest efforts to building his own art collection, devoted unique amounts of energy to providing the Louvre with frames more consistent with the paintings hung within them than had previously been the case: he innovated both the very idea of taking the framing of a painting seriously and directing serious efforts to providing the right one for a given work, subtly enhancing its appearance. Yet (to repeat) Strauss also possessed some interesting and valuable works of art—such as a small drawing by Tiepolo that ended up in the collections of the Louvre and an intriguing painting by Largillière, a Portrait of a Lady as Pomona, which ended up in the Dresden Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in former East Germany.

These works emerge in Baer de Pérignon’s narrative as a focus within what also evolves: a realization that they had not made the journey from Jules Strauss’s walls to the storage facilities of these museums along a legitimate path, but as part of the often obscure and unstraightforward process of cultural-artifact depradations in which the Nazis were so particularly skilled. Among the ironic—or galling—aspects of the Jules Strauss story was that his home, 60 Avenue Foch, also confiscated by the regime, was requisitioned by senior members of the SS specialized in black market operations and the seizure of Jewish property.

Pauline Baer de Pérignon’s own journey includes a number of interesting turns and twists as she also evolves, to become a knowledgeable and comfortable denizen of the archives in which she would eventually uncover the documentary proof that these works did not leave her great-grandfather’s possession simply because—as the director of the Dresden museum would cynically ask her during the first round of her attempts to regain that piece of her family patrimony—“perhaps Herr Strauss was happy to have sold his painting for a decent price?”

Differently—but equally important in stature and intangibility to her quest to reclaim these tangible connections to Jules and her family past—is her arrival to a point of wondering how, exactly, and why, precisely, her father and two of his first cousins converted, in 1940, to Catholicism. A whole other aspect of the world of Nazi confiscations emerged for her, regarding layered and interwoven aspects of her family—and her own—religious identity.

This last extended detail is ultimately shaped around the peculiar and willful amnesia of which, she comes to recognize, her family has been suffering during the two generations since the Holocaust had come, uprooted and destroyed so much, and gone, like a devastating typhoon. That amnesia set in, more specifically, after Jules’ widow, Pauline de Baer Pérignon’s great-grandmother, had filed several claims with her government—the French government—regarding the works of art that that government and its museum bureaucracy refused to acknowledge as having come into their possession along the illegitimate path of Nazi spoliation.

The amnesia that set in for the family, which involves its own heritage, both cultural and spiritual, and the amnesia of the French government and museum world, are part of the larger amnesia from which those who struggle in the trenches of art restitution are trying to help the Western world recover, as the decades since the Holocaust spread out and we continue, as a species, to repeat the sorts of actions that bought such grief to so many in such a range of different ways over 75 years ago. That is why this book—aside from its flowing style, compelling storyline and intriguing twists and turns—adds such an important chapter to the Holocaust narrative and its culture-centered subset. Its ultimate theme is really about restituting memory—that most significant of characteristics that makes humans human.