Het Parool: Municipality hands over painting Kandinsky to Lewenstein heirs

[This is an English translation of the original Dutch Article “Gemeente overhandigt schilderij Kandinsky aan erven Lewenstein” published on the Het Parool on February 28, 2022.]


On Monday morning, after a long legal battle, Amsterdam returned the painting Bild mit Häusern by Wassili Kandinsky to the heirs of the Jewish couple Lewenstein. The painting hung in the Stedelijk Museum until Monday.

Hanneloes Pen February 28, 2022 , 11:47 am

Bild mit Häusern (1909) by Wassily Kandinsky. IMAGE EPA

The painting, which was part of the art collection of the Lewensteins from Amsterdam before the war, was the subject of a lengthy dispute between the municipality of Amsterdam and the couple’s heirs.

The Lewensteins, who ran a successful sewing machine shop on Dam Square and fled the Nazis in 1940, had an extensive collection of paintings by Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Renoir and Manet, among others. The family also had a Rembrandt collection. In the 1920s, the family had bought the oil painting Bild mit Häusern , dating from 1909 . According to heir Rob Lewenstein, his grandparents lost almost their entire collection when they fled the Nazis.

20 million

The legal battle over the painting – the value of which is now estimated at 20 million euros – started more than eight years ago. At the request of the heirs, the Restitutions Committee considered the sale of the painting in 2013. Five years later, the committee ruled in a binding advice that the municipality was not obliged to repay. According to the committee, there was no evidence that the museum had acquired the work ‘not in good faith’ at the time. The heirs filed a lawsuit against the Stedelijk Museum and the municipality of Amsterdam, which officially owned the painting because the museum was not independent in 1940.

Last year, in response to the report of the Kohnstamm Committee, the municipality decided to return the work: ‘As a city, we have a history and therefore a great responsibility for dealing with injustice and the irreparable suffering inflicted on the Jewish population in the past. WWII’.

Alderman Touria Meliani (Arts and Culture): “We must never forget the indescribable suffering and injustice inflicted on the Jewish population during the Second World War. To the extent that something can still be repaired, we as a society have a moral obligation to act accordingly. This also applies to the many works of art that were in the possession of Jewish citizens and were stolen by the Nazis or otherwise lost from the owners.”

Rein Wolfs of the Stedelijk Museum: “Today the Stedelijk bids farewell to Bild mit Häusern . This farewell marks an important moment in Dutch restitution policy, following the recommendations of the Kohnstamm Committee. At the same time, it is also a melancholy farewell for the museum, because the painting was such an important link in our historically grown collection, which is loved by our visitors.”

James Palmer of the Mondex Corporation, who tracked down the painting for the family after the war and also acts as the heirs’ representative: “Today begins a new chapter in the lives of the Lewenstein family after their years of quest for justice, dignity and respect. (…) The Netherlands can be proud of the new restitution policy following the decision of the Kohnstamm Committee, which sets a good example for other countries to deal fairly with heirs of works of art belonging to Jewish owners.”

Rob Lewenstein, one of the heirs, calls the return “justice.” “For us and hopefully for other victims as well.” Kandinsky’s painting was on an easel Monday morning. Lewenstein: “I looked at the painting. It’s a beautiful work. From a certain angle you look straight into the street and you see the row of houses. My parents didn’t tell me about the paintings. My aunt, my father’s sister, tried to trace Kandinsky’s painting in the 1990s, but couldn’t find it. Her health became too bad. She passed away in 2007. Mondex found the job.”

The painting is stored in a safe place. “The family will decide what to do with it later,” Palmer says. Lewenstein: “We hope that the painting will soon hang in a museum somewhere.”

Mondex is now looking for some of the family’s other paintings in other countries. Palmer: “We have found some of the family’s works in other countries. We will know more about this at the end of March.”

One of those works is Das bunte Leben (1907), also a painting by Kandinsky, which currently hangs in a museum in Munich.