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
“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
“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
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
“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,
“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
“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
“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?”
“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.