The Vanished Collection
by Pauline Baer de Pergnon
New Vessel Press, 256 pp.
Reviewed by Dr. Caroline Goldberg Igra
The Vanished Collection by French screen writer Pauline Baer de Perignon starts out as a memoir, and very quickly evolves into both a tome on World War II Paris and a sort of mystery novel. Baer de Perignon sets out to discover the meaning of a transaction recorded in her great-grandfather’s logbook. That brief entry triggers a nagging question: How was a well-known Jewish art collector in occupied Paris able to escape Nazi persecution? In investigating the answer, Baer de Perignon tripped upon yet another ugly chapter in the history of Parisian Jews under the Vichy Regime: the phenomenon of what John Smith, the producer of a radio series on so-called “Degenerate artworks,” terms “vanished art;” literally art that was made to disappear due to extraordinary and perfidious forces.
Art stolen by the Germans (most notoriously by Third Reich’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR) and carted off to German soil (and elsewhere) where it was absorbed into both public and private collections, continues to be the subject of ongoing criminal investigations. Several European commissions were formed solely to address the phenomenon, and stories of both discoveries and restitution appear occasionally in the press. Many of these have been the inspiration for books. Notable examples include, The Rape of Europa, The Lady in Gold, The Monuments Men, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, and Plunder. Clearly, the combination of mystery and evil embodied by this “cultural theft” continues to fascinate.
Baer de Perignon’s work, distinguished by its engaging style and conversational voice, beautifully rendered by Natasha Lehrer’s smooth translation from the original French, is a wonderful contribution. Though the story is not fiction, it reads like a juicy novel, and the reader is immediately drawn in by the author’s genuine and very personal tone. Writing as a descendent, rather than an investigator, heightens the emotional tone of her work. The intrigue, as well as the twists and turns of her journey, make a book that could have been very dry both lively and touching. For example, standing in the Dresden Museum before one of the paintings that vanished from her great-grandfather’s collection, a work that he no doubt had touched with his own hands, she implores: “Tell me about the first time you met! Tell me how you ended up in this museum after the war, whose hands you have passed through.”
The author’s story centers on her great grandfather, Jules Strauss (1861-1943), a renowned art collector. At the beginning, she admits to having very little understanding of both the depth and significance of the collection, and Strauss’s impact on the market for French paintings in the early twentieth century. Part of the book’s charm is the author’s naiveté regarding the field that was, apparently, a family business. “Wasn’t I also Jules’s heir?” She muses. “I might not have any artistic sensibility, but something else linked us, even if I couldn’t put a name to it. I liked to think that there was certain complicity between Jules and me.” Through her research she discovers that his collection included exemplary works by Degas, Renoir, Monet, and many others. He owned so many works by Sisley that he was known as ‘Mr. Sisley.’
A conversation with her cousin Andrew ignites a frenzied investigation involving research in both Parisian archives as well as those farther abroad, a journey involving much foot work and many hours hunched over logbooks and inventories, often in a language other than her native French. We follow the author as she visits the Louvre, where she discovers her great-grandfather’s expertise in frames, a special archive devoted to lost art located outside Paris in La Courneuve, and another in Koblenz, Germany, where Nazi documents are kept. We are privy to conversations with various members of Baer de Perignon’s family (many of whom she had never met before embarking on this quest,) government administrators and officials, and famous French cultural figures with in-depth knowledge of the period, such as Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano—chasing him after identifying him on a street in Paris.
Although, as an art historian, I feared that her treatment of the art works for which she was searching would fall short, I found her descriptions of the paintings that had once been part of her great-grandfather’s collection sensitive and well-articulated. It’s clear that she has done her homework. For example, she describes Degas’ Portrait of Jacques de Nittis as a Child, one of the first works she encounters on that original list, as “hair disheveled, bending over his picture, pencil in hand,” giving “a charming impression of being both a little unkempt and deeply focused,” aptly wondering at the way an adult observes the child “in his imaginary world.”
As is expected in a memoir, the author shares her most intimate feelings regarding the project, expressing, throughout the work, how it answered her personal quest for purpose. She describes feeling aimless and unmoored until this search became her obsession: “What I truly yearned for was to be able to say that I had, at last, achieved something with my life.”
I would like to have been privy to the intimate thoughts prompted by the sudden, late-in-the-book consideration of her Jewish heritage: what it meant to her, and how it felt to know that she, two generations earlier, would have been a persecuted Jew as well. Although raised a Christian, there’s no question about Baer de Perignon’s relation to people who paid a heavy price for their religious identification. Her great-grandfather was forced to barter artwork to secure the safe passage of his Jewish family, and her great uncle perished in Auschwitz. She broaches the subject in the final chapters but focuses on the factual rather than the emotional aspects of the story, as she asks, “Did they follow any Jewish practice or ever set foot inside a synagogue?” The answers she finds are offered dryly, devoid of the intimacy with which she describes the new sense of purpose that resulted from taking on this project.
“My grandparents were baptized in 1942, as was quite common among the Parisian Jewish bourgeoisie during the Occupation, in a usually vain attempt to avoid persecution,” she informs readers. The lightning conversion of the Strauss family seems to boil down to just one more aspect of her investigation—the trend of Jewish Parisian bourgeois seeking ways to assimilate—instead of initiating an inquiry into its significance for the family, and for herself, generations later. Even at the close of the book, it’s a question that still begs to be answered.
The Vanished Collection offers an excellent, well-researched, and in-depth exposé on WWII Paris, the Vichy Regime, the insidious history of looted art, the difficulties of negotiating bureaucracy, and the fate of Paris’ Jewish population. By crossing borders and time, Baer de Perignon’s heartfelt, honest work creates a bridge between the world of Occupied France and her own, breaking the silence in which her family’s experience had been encased for decades, finding in art the power to convey what words could not.
Dr. Caroline Goldberg Igra is an art historian and freelance writer. Formerly an assistant professor of Art History at Haifa University, she has published numerous art historical articles and several exhibition catalogues. Her book, J.D. Kirszenbaum (1900-1954): The Lost Generation (Somogy Éditions d'art) was chosen as one of Slate Magazine's Best Books of 2013. Her writing has appeared in Away Journal, Mothers Always Write, Pandemic Journal, and Another Chicago Magazine. She published her first novel, Count to a Thousand, in 2018, and her second, From Where I Stand, in 2022. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, but maintains a clear footprint in her native Philadelphia.