The Vanished Collection

Written by Natasha Lehrer (trans.) Pauline Baer de Perignon
Review by Trish MacEnulty

When a cousin mentions to de Perignon that her great-grandfather’s art collection may have been stolen, she is inspired to go on a quest to uncover the family secrets. The author’s great-grandfather, Jules Strauss, was an art collector in the first half of the 20th Century, amassing paintings by the great Impressionists, including Degas, Renoir, and Monet, along with furniture and other objets d’art. The author, however, knows little about the collection or what happened to it, and her family, including an aunt with dementia, is not very helpful. Dismayed that nothing is left of her great-grandfather’s legacy, de Perignon writes, “No trace remains of my great-grandfather’s collection, only the imaginary museum that I am trying…to piece together.”

De Perignon makes it her mission to find out if her great-grandfather’s collection was looted by Nazis. She follows one winding trail after another and finally turns up a grand portrait housed in a German museum. Her perseverence, along with assistance from a Nobel prize winner and a supportive husband, pays off, but her saga demonstrates how difficult it continues to be to right the wrongs inflicted on Jewish families in World War II, and how the silence of a generation helps to perpetuate those wrongs.

A number of fascinating historical nuggets pertaining to the art world make this a worthwhile read for art aficionados. Particularly fascinating is the revelation of Jules Strauss’s contributions to the period-appropriate frames in the Louvre. Although I found the beginning with her research trips to the Museum D’Orsay and the Louvre archives somewhat tedious, as the book progresses, the mystery begins to unravel and the story becomes compelling, leading to a satisfying, if bittersweet, conclusion.