Read of the Week

Degas’ Dust

Carnie Matisonn with Charl Cilliers


Review: Brian Joss

A well-read letter, the paper brown and cracked, and the ink a faded blue which may have been black, and a drawing, apparently signed by Paul Gauguin, sent Carnie Matisonn on a lifelong journey to recover a prized art collection the Nazis stole after they murdered his granduncle, Karnielsohn in Oslo, Norway, during the German occupation.

Carnie’s father, Natie, could often be seen poring over this letter, in the dead of night, and Carnie, then 10, found the sketch and other papers and notes referring to Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Cassat, Miro, Picasso and others, from an international art dealer.

Matisonn, who has seven siblings, one of them journalist John Matisonn, was the product of what nowadays would be called dysfunctional parents: his mother, Eva, regarded him as an irritant, his father was a dreamer, a Jewish “intellectual” and an alcoholic.

They lived in a small three-bedroom house in what is today, Northcliff, and young Carnie often used to venture in to the “wilds” of that suburb to escape his mother’s punishment for some imagined slight.

Yet, despite the odds, he acquired two degrees, became a lawyer and established a successful financial consultancy. But he never lost sight of his quest to recover the looted artworks belonging to his granduncle, and Matisonn has a portrait of him painted by Degas. Along the way, Matisonn started the Stage Door in Hillbrow, the first supper theatre in South Africa and later El Teatro in Melville, which was devastated by fire and the culprits never caught. Matisonn, an accomplished violinist and musician, also became a helicopter pilot, which in a serendipitous way helped in the hunt for the artworks. The search took him all over the world for clandestine meetings in Paris, Portugal and Italy, among others.

One stormy winter’s day, Matisonn, in his Camps Bay home, was studying the painting of his granduncle and on the spines of the books in the picture that Degas painted were numbers which turned out to be co-ordinates for a small lake, Rodbyvennet, in Norway, where more Nazi artworks may have been hidden.

To reveal more would be a spoiler. But Degas’ Dust has all the elements of a top-drawer thriller, featuring as it does Mossad agents, who pop up in the most unexpected places, Nazi war criminals, international art dealers, Nazi hunters, looted art and “romance”. It also sheds light on the sanctions-busting operations initiated by the apartheid government.

Although it reads like fiction, it is a true story about a maverick who never gave up on his obsession. Degas’ Dust also gives a glimpse in to the Johannesburg of yesteryear, its Jewish and artistic communities. Don’t miss it.