One Legal Thriller Puts the Story of Painting at the Crux
COUNTLESS LEGAL THRILLERS have been published since lawyer-novelists Scott Turow and John Grisham came on the scene. That was in 1987 (Presumed Innocent) and 1991 (The Firm). So it’s surprising how long it took for a law-firm caper to include art as the central topic.
This is the work of yet another lawyer-novelist, Heather Terrell. She caught the genre wave with her first novel, The Chrysalis (2007). It follows a lawsuit that claims a Manhattan auction house holds a Dutch painting looted by the Nazis.
The painting, done in the seventeenth-century by Johannes Miereveld, shows a Virgin Mary holding a cocoon (i.e. chrysalis) with an emerging yellow butterfly.
The story opens with the case: An eminent auction house, Beazley’s, is putting The Chrysalis on the block. But just before that, Hilda Baum, whose ancestor was a Dutch art dealer, sues the house, claiming the Nazi’s stole the painting from her family. The heroine is Manhattan lawyer Mara Coyne. Her firm is defending the auction house. Her performance in this case—that is, winning for Beazley’s against Baum—will determine whether she becomes partner.
The legal cusp of the story is not a trial, but rather Coyne’s exploration of the “provenance”—the ownership history—of The Chrysalis painting. This allows the reader to learn a great deal about these legal technicalities.
However, along the way, Coyne and Lillian Joyce, the very elderly chief of the Provenance Department at Beazley’s, discover that the house had secretly built itself on the purchase of looted art. Much of it was bought from Kurt Strasser, an unscrupulous Swiss dealer who plied his art trade with the Nazis.
How did Beazley’s get the stolen art?
One of the auction house’s American founders, Edward Roarke, had a military friend in Europe named Frank Shaughnessy. Frank bought stolen art from Strasser. Then he shipped it to his wife by way of the military post office. Edward picked it up, and back at the auction house, had naïve staff prepare fake provenance papers. The works took on new legitimate histories, and could be sold at auction.
Unfortunately for Coyne, as the Chrysalis lawsuit case opens, she falls in love with the nephew of the crooked Edward Roarke. The nephew is Michael, a lawyer at Beazley’s who is in on its decades-long scam. Michael is cheering on Mara Coyne in her legal strategy to crush Hilda Baum’s lawsuit. Unbeknownst to Mara, the Baum lawsuit could unearth the entire malignant history of Beazley’s auction house.
The twists and turns start coming. Opponents and allies start changing sides as the truth is being discovered.
As the story opens, Mara and Michael gradually become lovers. Also at the beginning, Mara and Lillian Joyce, the old archivist, rub each other the wrong way. Then comes the reversal. Mara and Lillian unite to throw Michael in jail and vindicate the Baum lawsuit’s claims. No longer a lover, Michael becomes a physical threat to the two women as they race to find incriminating documents and spill the beans to the New York Times.
Author Terrell plots her book by alternating between three time periods: New York at the time of the lawsuit, Holland in the 1600s when The Chrysalis was painted, and the 1940s, when dealer Strasser was buying and selling with the Nazis. By jumping between the three periods, the author hopes the reader will begin to see the implications: The painting itself holds clues that legitimize Hilda Baum’s claim about its provenance.
If the love story of Mara and Michael becomes a train wreck, the love story of Johannes the painter and Amalia, the daughter of a Calvinist patron, had a happy ending. Or, at least as happy as it could be in an age of religious wars in Europe. Once Johannes and Amalia are secretly in love—and secretly becoming Catholics in a Calvinist town—he produces “a clandestine painting for the Jesuits of the Catholic meeting house” (i.e. The Chrysalis). He fills it with conventional Catholic symbols surrounding the Virgin Mary, but then adds more, with Amalia’s advice, pertaining to their lovers' bliss.
In the end, the Beazley’s archivist Lilian—who is in her eighties—realizes what had happened at the auction house during all the years she had worked there. As a young woman, she had arrived at the firm. Her first job was to produce the provenance records for The Chrysalis. At the time, she was also having an affair with Beazley’s head man, Edward Roarke. This was the first of many times the head man would manipulate her to produce a false documents for illicit artworks.
“I’ve been a pawn in Edward’s game all along,” Lillian said. “I wonder how many provenances he laundered through me.”
Now that Lilian knows this, she is Coyne’s chief ally. Lillian also finds out that the painter of The Chrysalis, Johannes Miereveld, is her distant ancestor. By the symbolism in the painting she has identified its provenance in a new and deeper way. Sadly, in all the excitement, the elderly Lillian dies of a heart failure. Happily, she has left her family inheritance to Coyne, her only friend in the world now.
The bad guys at Beazley’s manage to escape exposure at first. They report The Chrysalis was stolen, collect the insurance, and secretly squash the Baum lawsuit by cutting a deal with Hilda Baum: they secretly give her back The Chrysalis, since the theft was an inside job. Not so fast, though. Coyne gets the story to the New York Times. The fall of Beazley’s auction house is left to the reader’s imagination.
The author has mined the topic of art looted during World War II, a topic covered in a range of excellent non-fiction books. In novels that involve art, a few others draw upon that art looting theme without the legal drama. (see a future blog post on this).
The Canadian author Robertson Davies makes trading in art with the Nazis a centerpiece of his What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), the epic story of Francis Cornish, patriarch of the Cornish clan that populates three of his novels. The same is true with Paul Watkins’s The Forger (2000), about an American art student in Paris around 1939 who helps the French resistance forge paintings to protect real ones from the Nazis. Briefly, in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard (1987), the main character recalls being on the Allied team sorting through the looted art of the defeated Germans. And in the The Rembrandt Affair (2010), Daniel Silva has former Mosad agent Gabriel Allon rescuing a painting by the Dutch master stolen in those days of Nazi looting.