Lili Vera Gutmann 1919-2020

An obituary by Simon Goodman

Lili Vera Gutmann, who had never given up in her quest to recover her family’s looted art collection, has died of old age at her home in Florence, Italy. She was one hundred years old, and passed away, surrounded by family, on January 29.

Lili Gutmann with her nephew Simon Goodman

Born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1919, Lili was the daughter and second child of banker and art collector Fritz Gutmann. Eugen Gutmann, the founder of the Dresdner Bank, was her grandfather. Her mother, the Baroness Louise von Landau, also came from a renowned banking family. Growing up in a cosmopolitan world Lili ultimately was fluent in six languages. Under her father’s tutelage she excelled from an early age in the history of art. Famously she once prevented her father from buying a falsely-attributed Raphael, when she was barely ten.

In 1938, fresh out of finishing school, Lili married Franco Bosi in Tuscany. Her first son Enrico was born in 1939, her second son Lorenzo in 1940 and her daughter Louisa in 1941.

During WWII initially she was left unharmed by the Italian authorities, but when the German forces assumed control of Italy in 1943, Lili and her three little children were forced into hiding – first in the medieval towers of San Gimignano and then in countryside near Massa Marittima. Not only were the Gestapo a major threat, but Lili also had to fend off hostile communist partisans. Liberation came in the form of a young French lieutenant perched on top a Free French tank – it was Ève Curie, Mme. Curie’s youngest daughter. As if inspired, Lili continued to follow an independent path until her final days.

Sadly her parents did not survive the war. After a lengthy period of house-arrest in the family mansion ‘Bosbeek’, near Haarlem in the Netherlands, Fritz and Louise were sent to Theresienstadt in May 1943. Fritz was murdered there a year later, and Louise was sent to Auschwitz where she perished on arrival.

After the war Lili pursued a career in journalism, winning several awards. But early on, when it became clear that almost the entire Gutmann art collection had been looted, her primary objective, with her brother Bernard, became the retrieval of their lost heritage.

She began by having to identify her father’s principal artworks from memory. Not only had the family’s collection been decimated, but her father’s archives and library had also disappeared. One by one, with her brother, they filed ultimately over six hundred individual claims with the Dutch authorities. At the same time Lili worked ceaselessly with Rose Valland, heroine of the French Resistance and after the war in charge of the recovery of looted art for the French government. Together they attempted to track more of the Gutmann collection, which had been taken by the Nazis from Fritz Gutmann’s clandestine storage on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris. Early successes included paintings by Luca Signorelli, Jan van Goyen and Hans Memling, along with some important Louis XV furniture.

Lili continued working with Rose Valland right up till the 1960s, when the West German government finally offered some small compensation. Lili and her brother continued fighting for what seemed a lost cause. In the 1980s she made several appeals on German television but to no avail. The official response was that the still-missing Gutmann artworks must have been moved behind the Iron Curtain at the end of the war. The Soviets never replied to her entreaties. As soon as the Berlin Wall came down and the Eastern Bloc collapsed, Lili started firing off inquiries to the Pushkin and Hermitage museums in Russia. This time they replied, only they insisted they had nothing from the Gutmann collection.

Then in 1994 Lili’s brother Bernard died and his sons, Simon and Nick, inherited his correspondence. The brothers picked up where their father and aunt had left off. In September 1995 Simon Goodman discovered one of the Gutmann’s missing Degas pastels in Chicago. Lili flew to the States to give crucial evidence. There followed what became the first Nazi looting case to be settled in the United States.

Anne Webber, now Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), followed the ensuing legal dispute in a powerful documentary “Making A Killing”, and helped awaken public opinion to the unresolved issue of Holocaust era looting.

Following the breakthrough settlement in Chicago, Lili and her nephews turned their energies towards the Netherlands. Ultimately, with the help of the CLAE and the World Jewish Congress, a decree was ratified which established the Dutch Restitutions Committee. In 2001 the Committee made its first recommendation. Over two hundred and thirty artworks would be returned to the Gutmann family in the following year.

Simon Goodman, inspired by his aunt, continued searching for the family’s lost heritage with considerable success. And in 2015 chronicled the Gutmann family saga in his acclaimed book The Orpheus Clock.

Following the Italian publication of L’Orologio di Orfeo  Lili, still indefatigable at the age of 95, began to lecture around Italy on the wonders of the Gutmann collection and the horrors surrounding its loss.

Her force and determination were an example to many and will be sorely missed.





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