Since 1946, the San Diego Museum of Art has owned an appealing vision of happy prosperity: Frans Hals’ 1630s painting of a plump, rosy-cheeked Dutch merchant whose expression and body language exude confidence, security and bonhomie.
In the early 1990s, on one of his infrequent visits to Los Angeles from Europe, Bernard Goodman asked his son, Simon, to take him to see it. Standing in front of the portrait of Isaac Abrahamsz Massa, Bernard for the first time permitted a crack in what his son calls “the brick wall of silence” that had confronted him and his older brother, Nick, all their lives.
Growing up in London after World War II, the Goodman brothers learned only after they were in their teens that their grandparents had been murdered by the Nazis and that their father was the dispossessed scion of one of the great banking families of Holland and Germany.
But Bernard kept from his sons the anguished, needle-in-a-haystack search he conducted from 1945 to about 1955 for the fabulous art collection the Nazis had stolen from their grandparents.
The Dutch estate of Friedrich “Fritz” Gutmann and Louise Gutmann von Landau had housed Old Master and Impressionist paintings — among them the Frans Hals portrait — as well as sculpture, Louis XV furniture, elegant Chinese porcelain and dazzling gold and silver clocks, vessels and tableware.
Bernard, his sons would learn much later, had limited success in recouping their grandparents’ art after the war. He sold most of what he recovered to keep his now-struggling family going, sharing the proceeds with his sister, Lili.
As father and son stood in the museum gallery in San Diego, Simon Goodman recalled, “that painting started my dad talking a little. He started to open up — not too much, but he was just slightly emotional. It reinforced the concept that we’d lost everything.”