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Provenance by John Delacourt

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

John Delacourt's third novel, like the first two, reaffirms his love and deep knowledge of the art world. As in his novel Butterfly, Delacourt deftly weaves this into an intrigue of crime and politics on a par with bestselling thrillers, but elevated in taste and culture.

The novel begins in Rome in 1993. Lieutenant Christina Perretti, an investigator with Interpol's new art crime unit in Rome, reads through a cache of notes belonging to Harry Maes, a deceased East Berlin art dealer associated with the Nazis during the war. The notes, discovered during the recovery of a lost Egon Schiele painting in Moscow, are addressed to Maes's son Nikolaus. They refer to the provenance of a number of paintings which may have been stolen from Jewish owners by the Nazis and which were allegedly still in Maes's possession at the time of his death.

As Perretti attempts to recover these works, she also uncovers a decades-long conspiracy to save some of the Vatican's greatest treasures from the Nazis. This is accompanied by intrigue and murder involving those seeking to profit from the black market in stolen art in the former Eastern Bloc.

Perretti's role in the novel is merely to provide a framework for the intrigues of Maes and his circle of family and friends, many of them Jewish, during the dark years of Nazism and later under the Soviet occupation of East Germany. Maes himself is a sympathetic character who clearly has affection for his persecuted friends, but who nevertheless allows himself to profit from the Nazis' perverse attempt to both eradicate 'decadent' art and enrich themselves personally. There is undoubtedly a deeper moral lesson here, but it has escaped this particular reader.

Maes, though hapless at times, is not a villain in the story. In many ways he is the personification of banality in a world inhabited by extremely colourful characters such as his boss Magda, his wife Sabine, his wartime lover Dagmara and his last love Silvia. Indeed, the women dominate the narrative by sheer strength of character. And yet these same strong women, with the exception of Perretti, are not given a direct voice in the narrative. In this, Delacourt echoes Nabokov and Graham Greene by depicting the dynamic interplay between male and female characters, allowing strong female characters to have a profound impact on the narrative and the development of the male protagonist, without ever giving the former centre stage.

Superbly written and edited prose carries the novel and ensures a pleasant and easy experience for the reader. Provenance is a novel that will not disappoint, especially for art enthusiasts.

Provenance is published by AOS Publishing,


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