A nimble history of one of the richest European families at the turn of the century.
De Waal, a notable London potter, is a descendent of the wealthy Ephrussi family. He seized on an inherited collection of Japanese netsuke—small decorative figures made out of wood or ivory—and traced its ownership down the family line, from patriarch Charles Ephrussi, originally from Odessa, to Great-Uncle Iggie, of Tokyo, who left the 264 elegant figures to the author upon his death in 1993. The family’s fabulous wealth derived from the grain-trading business, operating between Paris and Vienna. Charles, who assembled the collection, was a dandyish art collector who settled in Paris at the age of 21, wrote art criticism and a book on Dürer and patronized the early Impressionists. He was quite possibly the real-life character on whom Proust modeled his Charles Swann. Subsequently, the netsuke was given to Charles’s cousin Viktor on the occasion of his wedding in 1899—just at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, when French anti-Semitism burst forth in full force—and the collection passed to Vienna, where the family resided at the surpassingly beautiful Ephrussi Palais on the Ringstrasse. Anti-Jewish feeling pervaded all facets of their lives, and two world wars wreaked havoc on the Ephrussi fortune. Eventually the netsuke was saved from the rapacious hands of the Nazis by a servant who stuffed it in her mattress. De Waal keeps a pleasantly ironic tone throughout this remarkable journey and nicely handles the clutter of objects and relatives.
The roster of characters is daunting at first, but this narrative proves a marvelously absorbing synthesis of art history, detective story and memoir.