deVolkskrant: Amsterdam may return Kandinsky painting to heirs of Jewish owners

[THIS IS AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE ORIGINAL DUTCH ARTICLE “deVolkskrant: Amsterdam geeft Kandinskyschilderij misschien tochterug aan erfgenamen Joodseeigena” PUBLISHED ON DEVOLKSKRANT ON FEBRUARY 19, 2021]


The city of Amsterdam may yet return the painting Bild mit Häusern by Wassily Kandinsky from the collection of the Stedelijk Museum to the heirs of its Jewish owners. The municipality, which has owned the work since 1940, hopes to be able to resubmit the case to the Restitutions Committee, which advises on the restitution of Nazi-era looted art.

Alex Burghoorn 19 February 2021, 16:03

Kandinsky – Bild mit Häusern. Image Stedelijk Museum

The case has been ongoing since 2012 and is weighing heavily on the city council, says Culture Alderman Touria Meliani (GreenLeft). ‘In recent years it has been too little about the victims and too much about the system in which the restitution of looted art is regulated. I have an uneasy feeling about that. As owners of works of art with a problematic provenance, we must be accountable for our history and, where possible, correct injustices.’

Kandinsky’s painting was purchased by the Stedelijk Museum at auction in October 1940 and has been part of the city’s collection ever since. Three heirs of its originally Jewish owners, Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein, claimed it nine years ago. The painting was said to have been sold under pressure from the German occupation and so it would fall under the broad definition of looted art. The Restitutions Committee ruled in 2018 that there were too few grounds for that claim.

The reason for Amsterdam to propose a ‘reassessment’ now is the evaluation of the Dutch restitution policy for looted art from the years 1933-1945, presented in December. The Kohnstamm Committee advised the Cabinet that it should be more empathetic. Amsterdam endorses that conclusion, Meliani wrote Friday in a letter to the city council. Implicitly, the city is calling on Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven to amend the Restitutions Committee’s guidelines.

The Kohnstamm Committee advised against weighing the interests of the (heirs of) victims against those of the current owner of the work of art. The ‘righting of injustice’ takes precedence over the interests of public display. Also, the argument that owners did not immediately reclaim art after the war should no longer play a role. It is understandable that Jewish survivors of World War II had something else on their minds after 1945.

In 2018, the Restitutions Committee included both arguments in its final judgment on the Kandinsky. Alderman Meliani can imagine that a new assessment will therefore be different if the Minister adjusts the guidelines. Three years ago the Restitutions Committee did take into account that the owners had already run into financial problems before the war, and that the sale can also be explained in this way.

It has become very legal and formalistic,’ says Meliani. ‘The human touch has been lost. I find it hard to digest that people have become bogged down in bureaucracy when trying to reclaim looted art, as Kohnstamm describes.’

Bild mit Häusern (1909) dates from Kandinsky’s expressionist period, in which he laid the foundation for his later abstract paintings with colorful and lush work. If it were to be auctioned again now, it could fetch several tens of millions of euros.