Edmund de Waal, London-based author of The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Picador), has described this memorable book as “a biography of a collection and the biography of my family.”
The collection he refers to is an assortment of some 264 netsuke, tiny elegant figurines carved by Japanese craftsmen in centuries past. The family is the Ephrussis, the famed Jewish grain and banking family, kin to the Rothschilds and once nearly as wealthy.
The book traces the history of the netsuke from about 1870 to 2010, inevitably illuminating the lives and times of their various owners from Charles Ephrussi, who assembled the collection, to their present guardian, de Waal himself. As much as this book is about art and provenance and the transitory nature of material possessions, it’s also a compelling family history drawn from an intriguing peripheral position.
The hare with amber eyes and the other netsuke in Charles’s collection were kept in a large vitrine, or cabinet, with green velvet shelves and glass doors that locked. De Waal intricately describes the room, with its lavish furniture and Old Master and impressionist paintings, in the magnificent Hotel Ephrussi in central Paris where Charles lived.
A fabulously wealthy banking heir turned prominent art critic and patron, Charles hosted many artistic soirées here, attended by the upper echelons of French society and many esteemed artists and writers. A debonair bachelor who conducted a discreet long-term affair with a married woman, his friends included Manet, Renoir, Whistler and Proust, who used him as a primary model for his character Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.
After the Dreyfus Affair erupted in 1894, many French citizens – including Renoir, Degas and the literary Goncourt brothers – openly declared their enmity toward the Jews. The netsuke’s Paris period ends on this discordant note: in 1899 Charles gave them to his cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi of Vienna, as a wedding present.
Almost in passing does de Waal relate the details of Charles’ remaining years and his death in 1905, after the netsuke have passed from his hands. The narrative focuses on the story’s various objects, characters and incidents, it seems, only so long as they are connected to the netsuke.
Viktor and his bride, Emmy, the author’s great-grandparents, reside in the Palais Ephrussi, a spectacular mansion in central Vienna. He acquires the netsuke at a time when the antisemitic Dr. Karl Lueger was mayor and thousands of persecuted Jewish refugees were arriving from the east.
Viktor and Emmy lived at the heart of Viennese society until the Anschluss, which introduced a flood of Brownshirts, shouts in the streets and shattering of glass. The Ephrussis were soon swept away by the turmoil. A mob with swastika armbands banged their fists on the door, swarmed into the apartment and ransacked it, a scenario repeated endlessly in many other Jewish households.
“They have walked past this house for years, glimpsed faces at windows, seen into the courtyard as the doorman holds the gate open while the fiacre trots in. They are inside now, at last. This is how the Jews live, how the Jews used our money – room after room stacked with stuff, opulence. Pushing the family members into a corner, they reach Emmy’s dressing room, the room with the netsuke, push everything off the desk, drag the desk into the corridor and over the handrail; it smashes on the courtyard below.”
Hitler arrives by motorcade along a Ringstrasse lined by cheering crowds; soon the male Ephrussis are taken away, but Emmy is permitted to live in two rooms at the back of the house. She watches as the contents of the apartment are Aryanised, becoming the property of the Third Reich.
“The house wasn’t theirs any more. It was full of people, some in uniforms and some in suits. People counting rooms, making lists of objects and pictures, taking things away. Anna [the maid] is in there somewhere. She has been ordered to help with this packing-up into boxes and crates, told that she should be ashamed of working for the Jews.”
The Nazis are interested in everything. Some Old Master paintings are given to museums, many others sold to dealers, and the very best photographed so that Hitler may have his choice of the lot. Books in the Ephrussi library are dispersed to high-ranking Nazis and to libraries in Vienna and Berlin. They also take clothes, furniture, silver; such materials are called “ownerless Jewish property.”
Viktor and Emmy’s daughter, Elisabeth, de Waal’s grandmother, escapes to England and revisits the Ephrussi mansion after the war. An American soldier invites her into what has been transformed into a series of offices. She recognizes only a few incidental family possessions; the vitrine is still there but it is empty. The soldier sends for an old local woman who might know more.
Thus is Elisabeth reunited with the family maid, Anna – and then with the netsuke, which Anna had smuggled out of the house in her pockets by threes and fours. Eventually Elisabeth’s brother, Iggy, inherits them and ultimately hands them down to de Waal. Beautiful and mute, these figurines are just about all that remain of the once inestimable Ephrussi fortune.
Bill Gladstone is a Toronto writer, genealogist and publisher. Read his past book reviews and articles at the website www.billgladstone.ca.