Artnet: A Surprise Ruling!

In a Surprise Ruling, a Dutch Court Said the Stedelijk Can Keep a Kandinsky That a Jewish Family Says Was Sold Under Duress in 1940

The controversial decision upholds a ruling made in 2018.

Kate Brown, December 16, 2020

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with Houses (Bild mit Häusern) (1909). Courtesy of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

A court in Amsterdam has ruled that Wassily Kandinsky’s Bild mit Häusern (1909), which was claimed by the heirs of a Jewish man to which it belonged before the Second World War, can remain in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum.

Heirs of the painting’s prewar owner took the museum and the city to court after the government’s Restitutions Committee rejected its application for the work’s return in 2018.

That initial decision was controversial in part because the family’s lawyers claim that four committee members have ties to the museum.

“I am astonished,” Axel Hagedorn, the Amsterdam-based lawyer for the family, told Artnet News. “These relationships should have been made public, and my clients would have acted differently.”

The work, which went to auction in 1940 during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, is worth millions, though no financial value has been disclosed. The family sold the work for a third of the price for which it was acquired 17 years earlier.

The claim for the painting was made by two US-based grandchildren of now-deceased Jewish businessman and collector Emanuel Lewenstein. They were joined by the widow of a foster son of Irma Klein, Lewenstein’s first wife, who owned the work before it was sold at auction in 1940. The three planned to split the painting’s value: 37.5 percent to each child, and 25 percent to Klein’s next of kin.

In the Wednesday ruling, the judge said that before the claimants took their case to the Restitutions Committee, they agreed to accept as binding its recommendation.

“When there is a binding advice, the judge cannot and may not redo the work of the committee,” the judge said, according to the Dutch publication Het Parool. The ruling also said the initial investigation of the work’s provenance carried out by the committee had “no serious defects.”

In 2019, the committee said it found no evidence that the work was stolen, as the heirs claimed. It also found that Klein, who had acquired the work through her divorce from Lewenstein, had not sold the work under duress nor due to financial losses incurred by the Nazi occupation. The court upheld these findings.

James Palmer, founder of Mondex Corporation, a company that helps families recover looted and unclaimed assets, said in a statement that the balance-of-interest test, by which the committee weighed the work’s value to the claimants against its value to its current holder, is “in violation of the Washington Declaration,” which promotes the investigation of cultural objects with suspect provenance that may have been looted by the Nazis.

“If this court decision is left unchallenged, then Dutch restitution policy will effectively be non-existent, and important looted art in the Netherlands will likely never be restituted,” he said. “This violates the Washington Declaration and defies morality, and as such is completely unacceptable.”

Hagedorn, the family’s lawyer, said he would appeal the ruling.

This decision comes on the heels of an independent report on the Restitutions Committee, published last week, claiming that it has not shown enough empathy to Jewish victims, and that it has sided too often with museums. It also claimed that the committee’s processes were not transparent.

In particular, the report called out the committee’s balance-of-interests tests.

After the report was published, the committee said it welcomed the “constructive recommendations” and said it would make “best efforts to adapt its working practices such that they are perceived as being less remote.”

A week before the report was published, the head of the committee, Alfred Hammerstein, resigned without a stated reason.