The Girl Called Princess Charlotte

The Girl Called Princess Charlotte

by Gerard Shirar

ISBN: 9781478761679

Publisher Outskirts Press

Published in Literature & Fiction/Historical, Mystery & Thrillers/Mystery, Literature & Fiction/Contemporary, Mystery & Thrillers, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description


Boston attorney Theodore Murphy, Teddy to his friends, has been handed a seemingly straightforward case: to recover a valuable painting by Franz Winterhalter, Young Girl Called Princess Charlotte, which was stolen by the Nazis from Jewish art dealer Dr. Markus Steiner. When the charitable organization founded in his will by Steiner learns that Anna Vogler has put the painting up for auction they demand its return. But Teddy Murphy finds that Vogler’s attorneys aren’t prepared to give up without a fight.

Sample Chapter

The Third Reich lasted just twelve years and four months. During that time the Nazi Regime passed laws that denied basic rights to its Jewish citizens, stole their property, forced thousands to leave Germany, interned in Concentration Camps those that remained, and in the end slaughtered thousands in the Holocaust. Although more than seventy years have passed, the impact of those events still lives with us today.

Cologne, Germany February 1938

The saleroom of the Lempertz Auction House, Kunsthaus Lempertz, is crowded and alive with activity. In spite of the cold temperature and lightly falling snow outside, the room is warm and somewhat stuffy. An ornate crystal chandelier hangs from the center of the coffered ceiling, its light brightening the room. Two large arched windows at the room’s far end admit the grey mid-morning light. Paintings spanning art styles from Realism to Impressionism, scheduled for an upcoming auction, hang in decorative gilt frames at intervals along the red coral-colored walls, adding a museum-like ambiance to the room. A feeling of anticipation hangs in the air.

Those awaiting the start of the auction sit in wooden folding chairs arranged in orderly rows in front of the auctioneer’s podium like soldiers in formation. They represent a cross-section of Germany’s politically connected, a mix of German society, some university-educated from prominent families, others from the working classes newly elevated in society through their Nazi, Nationalsozialististisch Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, affiliation. All are Nazi party insiders drawn to the auction by word of mouth, discreetly circulated through party channels. The majority of the men are conservatively dressed, most in business suits with the Nazi Party badge displayed in their lapel buttonholes. A few wear the Nazi Party uniform; several an officers’ uniform of a branch of the Wehrmacht, armed forces. The women are all expensively attired, some flaunting the latest Paris fashions. The ages vary, as do appearances… some are attractive and youthful, while others are plain-appearing and time-worn. They are here for mixed reasons: some looking for an investment, some to add to an art collection, or to buy something to turn over for a quick profit; others in the hope of acquiring a symbol to attest to their rise in society, or to outdo a rival, or simply to acquire a piece of valuable art at a bargain price to brighten a drab corner of a room, and a few… purely out of curiosity. In one way or another, whether they intended to or not, they are there as tools of Nazi Anti-Semitism, and Jewish persecution. As the auctioneer takes his place, the congenial talk that had flooded the room begins to subside.

“The first item this morning is a painting by Franz Winterhalter titled Junges Mädchen Nannte Prinzessin Charlotte, Young Girl Called Princess Charlotte, from the Steiner Gallery, Essen. It’s listed as item 26, of lot 239 in your catalogue,” the auctioneer says, his voice raised to be heard over the fading chatter.

This morning the auctioneer is a smallish man in his early fifties, dressed in a conservative three-piece business suit, sporting an ample paunch and neatly trimmed goatee. A great-great grandson of Mathias Lempertz, the auction house founder, part of a family linage of skilled auctioneers and art appraisers stretching back to 1845, he stands at the front of the room behind a lectern on a raised platform, a large Nazi banner posted on the wall behind him. The painting he is about to place up for auction, a portrait of a girl in her teens, rests on an easel to the left of the lectern.

The room has finally grown quiet as the auctioneer says, “Please note your catalogue reads, there will be no reserve on this lot. Now… who will start the biding?”

“Six thousand marks,” a man at the back of the room says in a strong, clear voice as he raises his bid paddle. In his forties, he is dressed in the Nazi party uniform of a Regional Leader, Gauleiter. His uniform tunic and Jodhpur trousers are mustard-colored and he wears jackboots. A swastika armband with a gold leaf center band circles his left arm. Red bars with gold leaves denoting his party rank adorn his uniform collar. His hair is cut close in the military style and he wears a galleried monocle in his left eye.

Several men, who appeared ready to bid, stop in the process and lower their bid paddles.

“Do I hear more?” the auctioneer asks. No one responds and the room remains quiet.

“The bid is six thousand. Let me hear six thousand five hundred. I’m at six thousand…would anyone go to six thousand five hundred?”

Finishing his chant, the auctioneer pauses and looks out over the audience expectantly. When there is no other bid, he begins his chant again, “I have six thousand, do I hear six thousand five hundred, six thousand five hundred.”

“Why aren’t others bidding?” a matronly middle-aged woman in the fifth row asks in a subdued voice of the man beside her. The man is stout and dressed in a Local Group Leader’s, Ortsgruppenleiter, party uniform.

“Shush! He’s bidding for a senior party official. As I told you before it’s a ‘Jew Sale’ arranged by Reich minister Goebbels. The painting, like the other art up for auction this morning, is the property of a Jew, and some of the top-level party leaders are being given priority. It’s all arranged. Everything will go cheap. We’ll have our turn later.”

“I’m at six thousand, I want six thousand five hundred; bid on six thousand five hundred,” the auctioneer continues to urge, his voice a rhythmic repetition. “Will someone give me six thousand five hundred?”

Again the auctioneer pauses and waits expectantly. When no other bid comes, he strikes his gavel down sharply on the lectern. “Gone once at six thousand marks.” The talk in the room has now begun to pick up. Few are showing interest in the bidding.

“Do I hear six thousand five hundred? It’s a Winterhalter…an example of his finest work. May I have six thousand five hundred?” the auctioneer intones again.

When there is no response, he strikes the gavel for the second time. “Gone twice at six thousand.”

Then looking out over the audience and seeing there will be no other bids, he strikes his gavel for the final time. “Sold to the distinguished Gauleiter for six thousand marks.”

Chapter 1 The Present I never planned my life. That is to say, I never laid out a set of goals that I wanted to achieve; I sort of drifted into things as chance and opportunity steered me. But I believe that the entity that rules over nature and looks after us must have a plan for me, because I have arrived at where I am. Where I am, or rather what I am, is a junior partner in one of Boston’s prestigious law firms. Being a lawyer is not all I am, but it’s a big part of my life and probably a good place to start.

It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning in mid-August, and I’m sitting at my desk on the seventh floor, the partners’ floor, of a high-rise office building on Franklin Street in Boston’s Financial District. Our firm, Taylor, Burrows and Snyder LLP, occupies the sixth and seventh floors of the building, one of those characterless steel-and-glass structures that seem to attract firms like ours. Through the window, I can see the Custom House Tower, and Boston Harbor beyond. The sky is cloudless with a slight overcast haze signaling the start of one of those warm city days that people with a bent for clichés call dog days.

I am here at this hour because of a message left the night before on my condo answering machine by Jeffrey Taylor, one of our senior partners, informing me that we would be meeting at 9:00 with Canadian lawyers representing the Trustees of the Markus Steiner Foundation. Since Taylor didn’t say, I have at this juncture no idea what the Markus Steiner Foundation is, or what the nature of their business might be. My name, by the way, is Theodor Xavier Murphy; Teddy, to those who call me friend.

“I see you’re on time, dear boy,” Jeff Taylor said from the doorway of my office, his voice snapping me out of my window gazing. In his very early fifties, Taylor is about six feet tall, with a head of prematurely white hair, and ruddy complexion. He’s a dyed-in-the- wool Republican with his eye on the bottom line, which sometimes makes working with him a problem. He’s also an Anglophile, having spent a year at Cambridge between graduating from Harvard and attending law school. He’s… old fellow, old chap, cheerio, and dear boy. I’m dear boy, although he’s only a few years older. His fashion also runs to wearing suspenders and bow ties, an affectation I consider sophomoric. All in all, though, we get along.

“Let’s go down to the conference room, dear boy,” Taylor said. “We can have some coffee there and I’ll fill you in on what I know. It’s an interesting case. The Steiner Foundation is looking for a firm to handle some litigation involving a painting. Know anything about art, dear boy?”

“I took a date to an opening at the Museum of Fine Arts a few years back. The hors d’oeuvres were delicious,” I said good-humoredly.

Walking to the elevator I stuck my head into each one of the partners’ areas to greet their secretaries. The women had arrived well before their bosses and I found the ritual prudent, since it kept me in their good graces and able to call on them when I needed to navigate office politics. My secretary, Janet Warren, as usual was late, but she was smart, dependable, and willing to work overtime when I was hit with a crisis, so I cut her some slack.

When we arrived at the conference room we found a pot of coffee brewing on the side board, and beside it an assortment of pastries.

“The foundation benefits a number of Canadian artistic and cultural institutions,” Taylor continued as he helped himself to a cup of coffee. “It was established by a German Jew, a Dr. Markus Adolf Steiner, now deceased. He was an art dealer who eventually settled in Montréal sometime after the war. The foundation’s lawyers are interested in recovering a painting that formerly belonged to him; pretty much a straightforward replevin case, I would think.”

A team of three lawyers representing the foundation arrived just after nine. Marcel Fontana, the senior attorney, was an impressive, distinguished-looking man in his sixties, impeccably dressed in a gray business suit. Several inches less than six feet, and dark- complexioned, as some of French origin are, he wore a stern facial expression. My initial impression was of a no-nonsense type, who practiced law from behind a desk for a wealthy clientele with little involvement in the affairs of common folk…but then, who was I to talk? His two assistants, a woman and a man, considerably younger, and who were probably the Canadian equivalents of one of our junior associates, trailed behind at a respectful distance, the man pulling three file boxes on a folding luggage cart.

“As I explained on the telephone,” Fontana said, addressing Taylor after we had settled around the conference table, “the painting is scheduled to be auctioned at Christie’s and we must take immediate steps to prevent its sale. It’s a painting by Franz Winterhalter, titled Young Girl Called Princess Charlotte. The German is Junges Mädchen Nannte Prinzessin Charlotte. It’s a portrait of a young girl and is considered among Winterhalter’s best work.”

Fontana pulled a photograph from his briefcase and placed it in front of us. “Notice how he’s captured the innocence while at the same time giving her expression an enigmatic look. The technique, I’m told, is called illusionism.”

“Who’s claiming ownership?” I asked.

“A woman, who lives in Concord Massachusetts, named Anna Vogler,” Fontana replied. “We have no idea how she came into its possession.”

“What’s the foundation’s claim based on?” I asked.

“Well, sometime in the fall of 1934 Steiner’s father died and Steiner inherited the family business, an art gallery in Essen. When Hitler came to power in 1933, German Jews quickly became the object of Nazi persecution. In 1937, Dr. Steiner was ordered to close the gallery and turn his entire art inventory, including the Winterhalter painting, over to a government-approved auction house in Cologne where everything was sold at well below what he would have gotten on the open market. Steiner never saw any of the money, which ended up in Nazi government coffers. At the end of 1938 Dr. Steiner left Germany and moved to Paris. Later when the Nazis invaded France, he escaped to England where he was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. After the war he settled in Montréal and opened an art gallery. The Montréal gallery was extremely successful and over time he became wealthy, establishing himself as a patron of the arts, helping young Canadian artists, and contributing money to Montréal’s cultural institutions. He never married. His mother and other relatives all died in the Holocaust, so at his death he left everything to his Foundation, making the foundation the painting’s rightful owner.”

“Seems pretty straightforward,” Taylor said. “There was never a legitimate sale of the painting, no willing seller; therefore the painting still belongs to Dr. Steiner and now his Foundation.”

“Yes,” Fontana said. “But our position is even a little stronger. We maintain that the Nazis stole the painting and that a thief, no matter in what guise, cannot legally transfer title.”

“I’m sure this is something we can handle,” Taylor said, wanting to close the deal. “If it were our case, we’d immediately file for an injunction to stop the sale. By the way, when is the auction?”

“Next Tuesday at Christie’s Boston Auction House. We have a week… and you’re right, we can’t delay. The sale must be stopped immediately.” “If you retain us,” Taylor said, “Mr. Murphy would be the attorney of record. I’ll be glad to provide you with his résumé, but I can assure you he’s one of the best trial lawyers in Boston and is also an avid devotee of the arts.”

I felt I had to say something, but bit my tongue. It was business and some exaggeration was acceptable… I mean about the art devotee thing. The other was an understatement.

“Teddy… Mr. Murphy… is also fluent in German,” Taylor said. “His mother and father met when his father was stationed with the US Army during the German occupation and he learned the language from her, so you see if there’s any German language involved he’s an ideal choice.”

“We did our homework before we contacted you,” Fontana said. “Your firm comes highly recommended and we know of Mr. Murphy’s trial skills, but his knowledge of German comes as a surprise. Yes, we would like you to represent us. We brought with us some material we think will be helpful. In two of the boxes are files from previous litigation involving the art the Nazis stole from Dr. Steiner. The third box contains information about Dr. Steiner’s life. He was an avid diarist and the box contains his diaries from the years relevant to the litigation. Dr. Steiner was awarded the Iron Cross during his service in the German Army during World War I and was a remarkable man who lived through an interesting time in history. Since the diaries and many of the documents involved in the case are in German, it’s most fortunate that Mr. Murphy understands the language.”

“Has there been any contact between the foundation and Anna Vogler?” I asked.

“No...none recently,” Fontana said. “We have found in these cases that it’s best to initiate the litigation without any delay. Valuable art has a way of disappearing.”


Excerpted from "The Girl Called Princess Charlotte" by Gerard Shirar. Copyright © 2015 by Gerard Shirar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Gerard Shirar

Gerard Shirar

Gerard Shirar graduated from Purdue University and is a twenty-year veteran of the United States Army, serving in Korea and Vietnam. He practiced law in Massachusetts for fifteen years, and is the former Director of Security for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

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