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Historian Pens Novel About Nazi Art Thefts

Work Connects With Modern Newsmakers

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Lauren Fogle Boyd's historical novel "The Altarpiece" centers around Nazi art-looting during World War II, a popular topic with recent developments.

By Julia Gavin

Anke Junger and Erik Brossler are fictional characters, but their story illustrates the systematic art theft and destruction perpetrated by the Third Reich and, later, the efforts to make things right.

While history department adjunct Lauren Fogle Boyd is a medieval historian, she was inspired to write a historical novel, “The Altarpiece” after seeing “The Rape of Europa” detail the widespread theft of artwork from Jewish families and those created by artists deemed “degenerates” by Adolf Hitler. Pieces by Picasso, Chagall and Kandinsky are known to be among works stolen from many artists. Hitler also sought out art he desired, most notably the van Eycks’ “Ghent Altarpiece” referenced in the book title.

“I couldn’t believe I didn’t know more about this part of the war,” says Fogle Boyd. “I read the few books available but thought the story would be best told as a historical novel. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to write it.”

Fogle Boyd’s research stretched from Hitler’s development of a large art theft operation to the modern-day efforts to reunite art with the rightful owners and their descendants. She also considered the effect the crimes had on collectors and the families of artists targeted by the Third Reich. Her characters tell the tale.

In Germany, Anke is the daughter of a painter condemned as degenerate. Eric is a Jewish art historian who dreams of one day marrying Anke. Though separated by the war for many years, the two are similarly affected by the art thefts as Anke focuses on the “Ghent Altarpiece” and Eric works to protect artwork from the effects of war. 

Artwork stolen during the war disappeared into Russia, private collections and many museums. Records were destroyed by the war, making it difficult to determine who originally owned notable pieces. Very few victims have or will get their artwork back. 

“There isn’t a major museum that doesn’t have work that is in dispute or that wasn’t looted from private homes or from Jewish art dealers,” says Fogle Boyd. 

Eric represents the American group called the Monument Men who found, repaired and returned art to rightful owners during and after the war. The Monument Men’s efforts are the focus of a forthcoming movie starring George Clooney. Between the film and the recent discovery of stolen works kept by the son of a Nazi art dealer in Munich, the art thefts are getting more attention from the media and public. The Munich case is especially interesting to Boyd.

“That’s where we’ll find more of this art,” Fogle Boyd says. It’s with families who have had the art for years and might not even know that they were stolen since it’s been passed down and sold many times.”

Educating with Novels

Historical fiction is a growing genre that connects readers to past events by building a story around facts. Fogle Boyd says that while readers might not pick up a research text on World War II, the love story and intrigue of Anke and Erik might be more approachable. She sees the genre as an effective way to educate and encourage readers to pick up a history book after finishing a novel.

“Some people have a preconceived notion that it’s going to be boring, but history is like a novel with settings, characters and drama. In historical fiction you don’t have to invent, just stick to the facts and add characters and dialogue to build the story,” says Fogle Boyd. “I’m in favor of people getting into history in any way that works.”

Fogle Boyd teaches the importance and use of history in her classes, noting that studying the past helps students think and write clearly and better understand the world. In class and in her novel, Fogle Boyd continues to bring new attention to the people and experiences of the past.

“People say write what you know, but you don’t have to,” says Fogle Boyd, of moving her focus forward several hundred years for the book. “Write about what you have passion for. If something interests you that much, it will interest someone else.”

Learn more about Fogle Boyd's book on her website.