By Sara Houghteling – “A thriller, a travelogue, and a mystery,” said the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about this 2009 novel, the story of Max Berenzon, son of a successful Parisian art dealer who, in the 1930s, falls in love with a woman, Rose Clément (the real-life Rose Valland), assisting in his father’s gallery. The three share an encyclopedic knowledge of the artists and artworks then in museums and galleries and private hands.
As Jews, the Berenzons must hide in the countryside during the war, returning to a ravaged city, their hidden artworks looted, the gallery burned, and little chance of recovery. Those familiar with The Monuments Men will appreciate this perspective on the story. (In the movie, Rose is played by Cate Blanchett and called Claire Simone). Houghteling weaves a good story that keeps the pages flying, and writes with vivid style: “That same winter, I was in Le Puy, where the stark, bare tree branches were like Chinese calligraphy against the sky.” Lovely.
Berenzon’s father advises him to give up searching for the family’s lost artworks, advising they will not be recovered for subsequent generations. And, indeed, regular news reports tell of the “discovery” and return of looted works, where that is possible, is the ongoing purpose of The Monuments Men Foundation. Says Houghteling in a postscript: “The locations of some 40,000 art objects remain unknown. They are in public and private collections and, many believe, in the former Soviet Union, plundered a second time by Stalin’s Trophy Brigades.”