BLOG TOUR – Zelda Richardson Mysteries
Amsterdam: the Perfect Setting for an Art Mystery
I can safely say if hadn’t moved to Amsterdam to study art history twelve years ago, I never would have written The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery. My life here as an expat and art history student, as well as the turbulent history of this amazing city, directly inspired the storyline and several of the characters.
Amsterdam is the perfect setting for an art-related mystery, especially one in which the looting of artwork by the Nazis during World War Two plays a central role. It’s about an American art history student who finds clues to the whereabouts of a collection of masterpieces hidden somewhere in Amsterdam, secreted away in 1942 by a homosexual art dealer who’d rather die than turn his collection over to his Nazi blackmailer. Write what you know, so as the saying goes.
A Museum for Every Taste
Art history is what brought me to the Netherlands. Though I’d planned on completing a two-year degree and then moving back to the States, once I got here and started my studies, I found it impossible to leave. I ended up earning a four-year master’s degree in art history and museum studies and had the privilege of interning and working for some of the most prestigious museums in the world, all located in this fine city I know call home.
Amsterdam is an art and museum lover’s paradise. There is a saying here that Amsterdam has more museums than in all of America. It might be true – there are more than 300 hundred registered museums within the city limits. Three world-renowned museums – the Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum and Rijksmuseum – are all situated on one relatively small city square in the heart of the city. Though most tourists come for the ‘Big Three’, there is literally a museum for everyone here: from the touristy weed, torture and sex museums, to prestigious photography, film and modern art museums, to well-preserved canal houses offering a peek into a bygone era, and specialty ones dedicated to hats, hand bags, eyeglasses, and pipes.
Amsterdam: a gorgeous and thriving metropolis
Anyway you cut it, Amsterdam is a gorgeous city. The centuries-old canal houses, boat-filled waterways, perfect puffy clouds and striking Northern light make it one of the most photogenic metropolises in the world, as attested to by the high number of films and television shows filmed here. During the summer, it’s impossible to ride through the center without having to take a detour because a film crew has taken over a street or even city block. The city’s many canals, bikes and pedestrians, tiny alleyways, centuries-old homes, distinctive churches, and hidden squares, lend itself as the setting for many a book as well.
There is a constant flux of tourists here – from day trippers to backpacking loungers – looking to get stoned, take a bike tour, pop into a church, visit world class art museums, the Anne Frank House and the Heineken Brewery, often in that order.
Yet the center is also alive and bustling with rich locals and expats who’ve set up a luxurious home in one of the canal houses, as well as the lucky renters who scored a government-controlled apartment as part of social housing. Parents teach their kids to ride bikes on the narrow brick-paved streets, allowing them to play football or skip rope in-between bikes, scooters, and cars racing by.
This mix of tourist, expat and local all jammed into a ringed city center you can bike across in a half-hour, makes for an interesting mix of stories and is a constant source of inspiration for me as a writer.
This city continues to spark new ideas. My next novel, another art-mystery about Asmat bis poles, missionaries and anthropologists – was conceived during my internship at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. I know this city – it’s museums, culture, architecture, colorful locals and even public transportation – stimulate me daily.
Looted Art and the Restitution Process
Like most European capitals, Amsterdam is drenched in World War Two relics, plaques, monuments, museums and memorials. It is a period of time that is still tangible for the older generation and its consequences are felt daily.
A novel about Nazi-looted artwork could have taken place in Brussels, London, Paris. Several famous books about the war are set in these cities, also deeply marked by the Nazis’ atrocious actions and policies. However, I’ve tried to create a plot and characters unique to the Netherlands by including details about the Nazis’ strict rules regarding what Dutch artists could paint and gallery owners could display, their underhanded attempts to decimate the local Jewish community without the gentile population noticing, and their sickening mental and physical abuse of homosexuals in a country where sodomy in public places was only a misdemeanor prior to the war. I’ve also worked hard to provide a Dutch perspective on the often complex process of art restitution.
While I was studying art history and museology at the University of Amsterdam, the Dutch government organized an exhibition of artwork looted by the Nazis yet still unclaimed, called Stolen, but from whom?. The exhibition was held in the Amsterdam’s Joodse Synogage, a religious building that was used by the Nazis as a ‘collection point’ before Dutch citizens were transported to concentration camps abroad.
The restitution of Nazi-looted art was a hot topic during my time at the University of Amsterdam and often discussed by prominent guest speakers who were directly involved in the exhibition at the Joodse Synogogue or in such controversial cases as the Goudstikker collection, an extraordinarily discombobulated, multimillion-dollar claim on the extensive collection once owned by art dealer Jacques Goudstikker.
At the same time, several now-famous non-fiction books and documentaries about Dutch art dealers active during the war and their controversial connections with Nazi officers, were published and featured prominently on regional television shows and in the local media. Newspapers and magazines printed long articles explaining the complexities and legalities involved in these restitution cases, even when there is no doubt as to whom the last legal owner was.
During my internships, I watched first-hand as several museums conduct the same archival research Zelda’s team at the Amsterdam Museum does, when trying to locate the rightful owners.
In many ways, The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery was happening all around me, all I had to do was write it down.