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San Diego Writer On Mission To Find Missing Van Gogh

September 4, 2013 1:49 p.m.


Lynne Kennedy, Author, Deadly Provenance

Related Story: San Diego Writer On Mission To Find Missing Van Gogh


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: They say art mirrors life. But something of the reverse is happening for a San Diego mystery author. Author Lynne Kennedy's fascination with the story of a lost Van Gogh painting formed the basis of her latest book. Now, are she's involved in a real-life hunt for the art treasure which may have been looted by the Nazis during World War II. My guest, Lynne Kennedy, author of the mystery, deadly provenance. Tell us about this missing Van Gogh painting.

KENNEDY: I can describe it. It is called still life vase with ole I can't understanders. It was one of Vincent's paintings in proVance in 1888. It is a very small painting, and it's easy to see why it might have been lost. It could have been easily taken off a frame if it indeed was on a frame and rolled up. And the story behind it is really fascinating.

CAVANAUGH: How long has it been missing?

KENNEDY: Since 1944.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the family who owned it, are and how they tried to save it from the Nazis.

KENNEDY: They were a French/Jewish family, the bern Heim family. They had a lovely collection. In 1941, they believed they were going to be targeted by the Nazis. So they gathered up all of their paintings and moved them to the chateau de raftin iac, which is this wonderful old place.

CAVANAUGH: It looks like the White House.

KENNEDY: It does. That's a whole other story I could tell you about!


KENNEDY: They hid them there thinking they would be safe. In 1944, however, the Nazis did raid the chateau. And before they burned it to the ground, they emptied it out. And witnesses say that they saw them bringing out paintings and various pieces of art and loading them onto Nazi trucks. Was the Van Gogh painting there? No one really knows.

CAVANAUGH: Or was it in the fire?

KENNEDY: Of course, that's always a possibility. There's been a lot of speculation. I talked to Lynn Nicholas, author of the Rain of Europa. She's very knowledgeable, and of course her book is one of the look-to books for this subject matter. And she feels it very well might have escaped the fire, but it would be in the hands of a collector now. Someone might have picked it up along the way and knew what they had. If it's in the hands of a collector, it's probably not going to see the light of day until it goes on sale at an auction or something. And then it's going to be real tricky because they really weren't the original owners.

CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everyone, I'm speaking with mystery author Lynne Kennedy. Tell us how you found out about the story of this missing painting.

KENNEDY: I write historical mysteries that are solved today by modern technology. And when I decided on this book, I was always interested in the Nazi confiscation of art. I decided to build a story around a missing piece of art. And I looked around for missing pieces of art, and indeed there are many, many thousands of pieces. Van Gogh happens to be a favorite of mine. I've read a lot about him. And when I saw this one, I said this is a perfect painting. It was there in 1941, it was missing in 1944. My novel takes place in the past in that particular time period, it would be just perfect.

CAVANAUGH: So this is a real-life event, the missing Van Gogh painting. But in your book, it's obviously a novel, so you treat it, you find some solution to it. How do you address -- I'm not going to ask you to give away the plot, but how do you address the fact that the Van Gogh painting is missing in this novel? Do you resolve it in some way?

KENNEDY: I do resolve it. My character in the book is a digital photographer. She lives today. And her job is kind of an impossible one. She's asked to authenticate this painting from a photograph that she's given. Her friend is murdered, and her friend's grand father was clearly a Nazi and involved in the confiscation of art. So she has this photo, which is -- if you know anything about the German technology at the time, it would have been a very sharp, very well done photo. And she has to decide whether she can authenticate this painting from the photo. And I had done some research and found out that, yes, it is possible, maybe not to absolutely say this is a Van Gogh, but to perhaps say it is not a Van Gogh.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, I see! &%F0


KENNEDY: They've done models at Dartmouth now, to compare aspects of paintings.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you about the research that you did into the art theft by the Nazis in World War II. You reference the book The Rape of Europa. Tell us about the extent of the art stolen by Nazis in World War II.

KENNEDY: Very extensive. It was -- they had stole millions and millions of pieces of work, altar pieces, sculptures, books, jewelry, and certainly paintings. When they took them from what they called undesirables, I that would store them in various places. One of the places that I actually visited was the Joe de Pau museum in Paris. And they had a room they called the room of martyrs. And they stored these paintings back to back, hundreds and hundreds of paintings. Many of them disappeared. One of the reasons why I chose the Van Gogh was because it actually did not wind up there. It wound up somewhere else. And I thought that was kind of a more interesting story, something a little different. And of course they wound up stored in mines, salt mines in Austria and Germany and were found later by the Allies.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And they had a whole army section to try to figure out what the art was, where it came from. The Nazis are known are keeping detailed records of the items stolen. Is there any record of this painting, this Van Gogh painting?

KENNEDY: I am looking. I've been in touch with Lynn Nicholas, and another gentleman, a professor at Clairemont McKenna college who worked on the documentary film with her and tried to find out where I could look. The key organization of the Nazis that did the confiscation of art was called the ERR. They were the ones that kept meticulous records where everything went. So right now, I've been looking at the federal archives in Koblenz Germany, I got a lovely note from a German gentleman there who said he couldn't find anything in that record. I even sent him the photo. So it's not going to be that easy. But I've had help from the Getty in Los Angeles, and an organization called HARP, the holocaust art restitution project, and their job really is to help people find their paintings.

CAVANAUGH: When did this turn from being a good idea for a novel into what it is now for you, which is a real-life hunt to find out what happened to this painting? And perhaps even what happened to some other paintings along the way. If you gather some of this information about other lost paintings.

KENNEDY: Well, people have asked me, what happened to the painting after they read my book or have seen the cover of my book, which in fact is the painting, and I said, well, I don't know what really happened to the painting. Wouldn't that be interesting to find out? And I just got so into it. And I'm kind of a researcher at heart.

CAVANAUGH: You used to work for the sheriff's department, right?

KENNEDY: Well, I worked with them. We did a lot of forensic programs. I was at the Ruben Fleet science center for many years.

CAVANAUGH: So researching is something that you really love.

KENNEDY: I love it.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering how people react when you tell them that you are on the hunt for this missing Van Gogh.

KENNEDY: They're fascinated. I'm on social media a lot. And I get a lot of comments, people are saying well, maybe I'll check with my aunt in Pennsylvania! And you know, stranger things have happened. About you if you look at the news, almost every week, you will see something about a lost piece of art or a fight between a museum and an heir about a lost piece of art. There was recently something in the paper about France being a bit remiss in helping people find their lost art, which is kind of unusual because France of course was a key player in the confiscation area.

CAVANAUGH: This is all fascinating, but it's been such a long journey for so many people, so many families who had their treasures stolen from them, they've literally spent lifetimes trying to track these things down, trying to get museums and governments to acknowledge the fact that this was stolen from my family, and this is mine.

KENNEDY: Right. Exactly. I think maybe part of what I'm doing here is reenergizing that effort. Making people aware that there are still these pieces missing out there. And maybe they'll be just more inclined to realize that that was another terrible effect of what happened during World War II. And I don't know, maybe someone will call me and say, hey, come here! I have something for you.

CAVANAUGH: Right now has the trail kind of gone a little bit dead, or are you pursuing some promising leads?

KENNEDY: Promising, it's hard to say. I'm pursuing lots of leads. There are a lot of people everywhere who have the possibility leading me somewhere else. One trail leads to another. So it's really been fascinating. Even here in San Diego, are I ran into a waitress at a restaurant who was actually from the Bordeaux area, and she said she was going to ask her family if anyone remembered anything about the chateau there and what might have happened and if anyone was around.

CAVANAUGH: And in your book, I'm not going to ask you how it ends, but is it resolved? Does it have a happy end something

KENNEDY: Yes. It is resolved.

CAVANAUGH: All right. I'll leave it at that then! For more information, you can go to her website,