The House of Fragile Things Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France James McAuley

Publication date:
23 Mar 2021
Yale University Press
320 pages: 235 x 156mm
30 color and 47 b-w illus.
Sales territories:

Buy this eBook

You can purchase this title from a number of online retailers:

A powerful history of Jewish art collectors in France, and how an embrace of art and beauty was met with hatred and destruction

“Alluring and disturbing. . . .  The depths of French anti-Semitism is the stunning subject that Mr. McAuley lays bare. . . .  [He] tells this haunting saga in eloquent detail. As French anti-Semitism rises once again today, the effect is nothing less than chilling.”—Diane Cole, Wall Street Journal

In the dramatic years between 1870 and the end of World War II, a number of prominent French Jews—pillars of an embattled community—invested their fortunes in France’s cultural artifacts, sacrificed their sons to the country’s army, and were ultimately rewarded by seeing their collections plundered and their families deported to Nazi concentration camps.

In this rich, evocative account, James McAuley explores the central role that art and material culture played in the assimilation and identity of French Jews in the fin-de-siècle. Weaving together narratives of various figures, some familiar from the works of Marcel Proust and the diaries of Jules and Edmond Goncourt—the Camondos, the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis, the Cahens d'Anvers—McAuley shows how Jewish art collectors contended with a powerful strain of anti-Semitism: they were often accused of “invading” France’s cultural patrimony. The collections these families left behind—many ultimately donated to the French state—were their response, tragic attempts to celebrate a nation that later betrayed them.

More about this title

James McAuley is the Paris correspondent for the Washington Post and a contributor to the New York Review of Books. He recently received his doctorate in French history at Oxford.

“Engrossing...traces the long, vexed relationship of these families with materiality, their faith that they could “create something beautiful in an increasingly hostile environment”, their attempt to control works of art as they could not control life.”—Jackie Wullschläger, Financial Times

“A moving portrait of a glittering, doomed world”—The Economist

“A comprehensive and accessible account of one of the great communal acts of generosity – and then betrayal – in modern history”—Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian

“A well-judged investigation”—Julian Barnes, London Review of Books

‘A haunting and melancholy book that brings to life a wealthy but beleaguered Jewish milieu that was determined to demonstrate its loyalty to France.’—Philip Nord, author of France 1940: Defending the Republic 

‘A remarkable book. I’ve finished reading with a sense of wonder at the unknown world its author recreates for us, and with shock at how senselessly that world was destroyed.’—Alice Kaplan, author of Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic 

‘Fascinating, sensitive and heartbreaking, deeply researched and elegantly written, filled with flamboyant dynasties of art collectors, McAuley guides us between the chic glamourous sophistication of the Paris art world and the murderous greed of the Nazis and their collaborators.’—Simon Sebag Montefiore 

"Beautifully written, astoundingly researched and penetrating in its gaze into an irrecoverable world, both Parisian, European and Jewish, James McAuley vividly revives a past now on the brink of escaping living memory. The House of Fragile Things is a book about art, France, the Holocaust and what it can mean to be a Jew, that will haunt you long after you have read it."—Ben Judah, author of This is London