Jennifer Alderson's The Lover's Portrait
Jennifer Alderson has created a fast paced and suspenseful historical novel about art theft In the Netherlands. Two time lines connect the plot.
In the contemporary time line is the feisty Zelda Richardson, intern for an Amsterdam museum’s exhibition of still unclaimed artwork once stolen by the Nazis. Trouble begins when two women claim the same painting. Zelda and her friend Friedrich become detectives in what becomes a dangerous game worth millions in artwork and a cover up of murders.
During the Nazi occupation time line, priceless artwork was stolen from Jews, gays, dissidents and other victims by the Nazi government and too with the assistance of officials and citizens of the occupied countries. Arjan van Heemsvliet is an art dealer trying to protect his artwork from the greed of the Nazis and at the same time, hide his homosexuality, a “crime” which could send him to a concentration camp.
Jennifer has pulled together all of this data into an exciting and suspenseful historical novel. Zelda, our modern sleuth, is impulsive, courageous and smart as Sherlock Holmes in sniffing out clues. I immediately liked her! Jennifer told me, “Zelda’s intellect is driven by her endless curiosity, a deep-seated need to be right, and her naiveté in the ways of the world.”
When Zelda first arrives in Holland, “[S]he knew so little about the city’s wartime past. And after a visit to Anne Frank’s house, she hadn’t wanted to learn more. It was all too depressing.” Soon she is absorbed in the era, fighting passionately to help right the wrongs done.
Much of the novel reveals decisions made by gut-instinct. Zelda immediately sides with one candidate for the painting. She shares all information with Frederich but doesn’t trust her supervisors at work, not wanting to jeopardize her internship. Arjan van Heemsvliet is trusted by many of his clients to safeguard their art during the Nazi persecution but trusts few with his own secret. Jennifer reveals the agonizing fear during this era—one poor decision could cost one’s life.
An archivist helping Zelda tells her grimly, “This was truly a dire period for the Netherlands, and all of Europe really. I could tell you so many heartbreaking stories…They [Nazis] would trade up anytime a house became ‘unoccupied’ mostly due to their Jewish owners being shipped off to concentrations camps, …. ordering homes to be ‘emptied’ of their legal occupants simply because they wanted to live there….That sort of abuse happened more often than you think.”
It is not surprising that this theft, so endorsed and later ignored, continued to this day. Jennifer noted, “As far as the art is concerned, the sad reality is that until the 1990s, auction houses and museums felt little moral pressure to check to see if a work was looted when it was offered for sale or bequeathed to them…. It was the Credit Swisse Bank scandal that was the impetus to start checking their artworks provenance.”
By making the villains in the two time lines family members, Jennifer firmly connect the two eras. “I wanted to explore the dark side, to try and get into a Nazi’s head to better understand how they could justify their actions to themselves, as well as how they would view their actions and victims.”
The story of Huub Konijn is amazingly poignant. He and his older sister hid during the war and the rest of the family was murdered at Auschwitz. After liberation, Hubb and his sister went back to their apartment, where another family was living. “The current owners showed no understanding, remorse or shame. More embarrassment that Margo had knocked on their door, reminding them of the horrors of the war.… All she got for her efforts was to be kicked out of the house, thrown onto the curb as if she was a bag of garbage.” His sister was then 15.
This happened to most of the Jewish survivors—possessions were not returned and fellow citizens were not happy to see they had returned. “Not only was most of his family murdered by the Nazis, the Dutch government did nothing to help him or his sister when they’d returned to Amsterdam and discovered that their possessions had been seized and sold off, ultimately leaving them penniless and homeless.” Instead of revenge, Huub devotes himself to the restoring of the stolen artwork to the owners. I hope he returns to Jennifer’s future novels.
The Nazis and their helpers murdered three-quarters of Dutch Jews, the highest number in Western Europe. Countless others including homosexuals were persecuted, imprisoned in concentration camps and murdered. Jennifer’s novel shows that despite the greed and cruelty, the returning of art to the victims’ families, continuing even to this day, is an attempt to restore not just the artwork, but a modicum of justice seventy years alter. It is a story worth telling and Jennifer does it very well.
Cafés abound throughout the Netherlands and Zelda and Frederich visit many for some wonderful coffee. A traditional accompaniment to the coffee is the Dutch Appeltaart, a very delicious piling of apples in a sweet crust. Cut yourself a slice and sip some coffee as you read all about Zelda’s adventures!