They also serve – a gripping novel of saving stolen art in WWII

Review: Vivien Horler

The Paris Deception, by Bryn Turnbull (Headline Review)

Many brave people were part of the French Resistance against the Nazis during World War II, risking – and even sacrificing – their lives for the dream of a free France.

Others were involved in less dramatic acts of resistance but which, if discovered, would probably have had much the same outcome.

This is a novel about a group of people connected with the arts who decided to do what they could, in their own fields, to stymie the Germans.

A peripheral character, Rose Valland, was a real person, an art curator at the Paris-based Musee Jeu de Paume, a Resistance operative dedicated to safeguarding France’s cultural heritage. She secretly recorded the movement of priceless works of art, thousands of which were stolen from Jewish and other “untermensch” such as Roma, Communists and Freemasons, and shipped to the Third Reich.

The novel opens in Berlin in March 1939 with Sophie, a skilled art restorer, watching appalled as Nazis make a bonfire of what they consider to be Entartete Kunst – degenerate art – outside the Reichstag. Art worth millions goes up in flames – Cubist paintings, Expressionist works, Surrealist pastiches and Dadaist collages.

They had previously been on display at the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in 1937, “a master collection of modern art displayed in cruel chaos, jingoistic propaganda condemning the pieces as the work of sick minds, Jewish conspiracies and homosexual perversion”.

Now, two year later, Sophie is based at the Musee Jeu Paume, repairing and restoring damaged pieces. With the arrival of the Germans, many of the works in the museum have been spirited away by staff to protect them from the Nazis, and Sophie essentially finds herself without a job.

Then Rose Valland calls her to her office and asks her to stay on. The Germans, it seems, want to use the musee as a base for the ERR, a group of German curators, art historians and connoisseurs who are, in theory, safeguarding France’s national art collection – but are in fact seizing works of art and shipping them to Germany.

It would of course mean working closely with the Germans, and Sophie is appalled that Rose is prepared to do so and, worse, expect Sophie to join her. But Rose points out that much of the art they will be working with had belonged to people now considered stateless – ie Jews – and at least the two women will be in a position to make sure the works are properly accounted for.

Sophie reluctantly agrees.

Then she realises the musee has quite a collection of “degenerate art” and wonders how she can help save it. She thinks of her estranged sister-in-law Fabienne, whom she blames for the death of her activist brother at the hands of Nazi thugs.

Fabienne is a talented artist, and could perhaps copy some of the paintings, so that the originals could be hidden away for the duration. Then after the war, they would be returned to their rightful owners.

Fabienne agrees, and the first painting is forged. Fabienne takes the original to her family home, a wine estate in the Champagne region from which she fled for the bright lights of Paris, and hides it in the attic.

And so the deception begins. There are, naturally, no end of complications, including the fact that art lover Hermann Goering’s secretary finds Sophie sexually attractive, and that it is almost impossible to dry oil paints rapidly, a problem when Sophie can smuggle art out of the musee to Fabienne for just a few days at a time.

Meanwhile it turns out that it is not just Sophie and Fabienne – and Rose – who are working against the regime. Many people in France have secrets during this difficult time, including Fabienne’s parents, her former fiancé, and Rose.

An enormous amount of research has gone into this gripping historical novel, although there is an egregious anachronism when a vehicle breaks down and the driver wishes they had a pair of pantyhose to sort out the problem. Pantyhose in 1943! They were invented only in 1959 – I looked it up. Before that it was stockings and suspender belts.

But that’s the most minor of quibbles. The issue, of art stolen from its rightful owners in wartime, remains a worrying one. In her author’s note at the end of the book, Bryn Turnbull says Germany plundered an estimated 20% of all artworks in Europe from those opposed to Nazi ideology. Goering’s collection alone contained over 2 000 works of art. Much of the plundered art has never been recovered.

The Pars Deception, one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for August, is thoroughly recommended.

One thought on “They also serve – a gripping novel of saving stolen art in WWII

  1. David Bristow

    it only takes one slip (pantyhose). I remember the probably apocryphal story of the British spy who was caught in France by a Gestapo officer who noted that before crossing a street they had looked right first …


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