Books about stolen treasures

A number of excellent books explore the subject, including nonfiction accounts that read like spy fiction.

Books about stolen treasures photo image

Memento Park, this year's selection for Chicago's celebration of Jewish Book Month, is fiction. But its storyline provides a glimpse into the very real complexities surrounding artwork that was stolen, lost, or sold under duress during extraordinary circumstances in World War II.

A number of excellent books explore the subject, including nonfiction accounts that read like spy fiction. Two of these -- The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter and The Lady in Gold by Washington Post writer Anne-Marie O'Connor -- shed light on the subject with star-studded film adaptations.

The Monuments Men, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, follows a dedicated team of Allied operatives who go behind enemy lines to save cultural treasures targeted by the Nazis. Included in this group of unlikely heroes are art historians, conservators, and museum curators (with George Clooney and Matt Damon bringing movie-star panache to key roles in the film version). Author Robert Edsel has spent much of his career delving into the subject of stolen art. He wrote Rescuing Da Vinci, co-produced the award-winning documentary of Lynn Nicholas' 1994 The Rape of Europa, and founded the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, which received the National Humanities Medal.

The Lady in Gold reconstructs the lost world of high-society Jewish Vienna, where Gustav Klimt created a painting of heiress and art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer. The book follows the painting's mysterious path, from its creation, through its theft by the Nazis, to the decade-long court battle that has had profound ramifications throughout the art world. The film starred Helen Mirren.

Also touching on Jewish life in Vienna, The Hare with Amber Eyes is an amazing nonfiction account that follows a more circuitous and personal narrative. When renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal inherits a collection of tiny Japanese sculptures, he seeks to find out where they came from and how they survived. In doing so, he uncovers the rise and fall of a 19th-century Jewish banking dynasty. The Ephrussi family was a prominent Jewish banking clan, with offices throughout Europe and a valuable collection of art. But after the Nazis ransacked Vienna, all that remained was a collection of miniature Japanese carvings, called Netsuke, hidden in a mattress by the family's maid. De Waal, a descendant who came into possession of the Netsuke, traces the history of the family and the figurines. (After you read this, watch the video of de Waal speaking at the baroque Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, where his grandmother Elisabeth de Waal née Ephrussi was born in 1899 and spent her childhood.)

As with Memento Park, the subject of stolen art serves as a key in a range of fiction books. Of these, Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See has stayed with me. The book, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, follows a blind French girl who lives with her father, the master of the locks at the Paris Museum of Natural History. When she and her father flee to Brittany, their unique talents intersect with the resistance in surprising ways.

Do you have favorite titles not on this list? Email me at so I can explore and share.

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