Het Parool: Municipality: Stedelijk Museum must return Kandinsky painting to heirs

[THIS IS AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE ORIGINAL DUTCH ARTICLE “Gemeente: Stedelijk Museum moet schilderij Kandinsky teruggeven aan erfgenamen” PUBLISHED ON THE HET PAROOL ON AUGUST 26, 2021. (https://www.parool.nl/amsterdam/gemeente-stedelijk-museum-moet-schilderij-kandinsky-teruggeven-aan-erfgenamen~b5301c72/)]

The Stedelijk Museum must return the painting Bild mit Häusern by Wassily Kandinsky, which was purchased in 1940 , to its heirs. Since 2013, they have been fighting a legal battle to get the work back.

Hanneloes Pen and Ruben Koops August 26, 2021 , 16:17

Bild mit Häusern will remain in the permanent collection at Stedelijk Base until the transfer. IMAGE EPA

The municipality announced this in its council letter on Thursday.

‘Due to the long lapse of time and the importance of rectifying injustice, we will return the work without further intervention of the Restitutions Committee. As a city, we have a history and with that a great responsibility for dealing with the injustice and irreparable suffering inflicted on the Jewish population during the Second World War. The municipality of Amsterdam has a moral obligation to act accordingly. The Municipal Executive stands for a fair and clear restitution policy, which essentially makes it possible to return as much art as possible to the rightful owners or the heirs of the owners,’ according to the municipality.

Before the war, the painting was part of the art collection of the Jewish couple Lewenstein, who ran a successful sewing machine shop on Dam Square. They had an extensive collection of paintings by Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Renoir and Manet, among others. They also had a Rembrandt collection. In the 1920s, the family had bought the 1909 oil painting Bild mit Häusern .

Lost entire collection

The family fled the Nazis in 1940. Heir Rob Lewenstein: “My grandparents lost almost their entire collection. We want this painting back because the work was involuntarily relinquished.”

Bild mit Häusern and another painting by Kandinsky, Das bunte Leben , were offered in 1940 at the Frederik Muller & Co auction in Amsterdam. The then director David Röell of the Stedelijk bought Bild mit Häusern , while it was unknown how the painting came up for auction. He paid 160 guilders for it – a pittance of the original value at the time, 2000 to 3000 guilders. According to the family’s lawyer, price agreements were made between them. The work would now be worth around 20 million euros. The heirs believe that the museum got hold of the work ‘in an unethical way’.

‘Deteriorated financial conditions’

In 2013, at the request of the heirs, the Restitutions Committee considered the sale of the work to the Stedelijk Museum and the municipality of Amsterdam, which officially owned the painting because the museum was not independent in 1940.

In 2018 , that committee concluded that the painting did not need to be returned because it had not been stolen. According to the committee, the sale of the painting must have been caused by the ‘deteriorated financial circumstances’ in which Lewenstein found himself before the German invasion.

According to the heirs, this was not the case. They filed a lawsuit against the Stedelijk Museum and the municipality of Amsterdam. The judge ruled in December last year that the Stedelijk was allowed to keep the work. The court ruled that it was a binding advice from the committee, in which both parties had indicated that they would accept this advice. “Despite extensive research, it has remained unclear exactly how the work came to be auctioned, under whose instructions and under what circumstances,” said the court. The family then appealed .

Art stolen by Nazis

In the same month, the Kohnstamm Committee , which evaluated the Restitutions Committee’s policy, ruled that the Netherlands should make greater efforts to restitute art stolen by the Nazis. In total, about 3800 pieces, known as the Dutch Art Property Collection, have their origin during the war.

In February of this year, the Municipality of Amsterdam decided that the Restitutions Committee should reconsider whether the Stedelijk should return the painting.

The Commission has established that for this painting a balancing of interests between the heirs and the municipality of Amsterdam should no longer be central, as in the binding advice of 2018, but the restoration of injustice for victims. In addition, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science has now established a new assessment framework for the Restitutions Committee on the basis of the advice of the Kohnstamm Committee, in which the weighing up of interests has lapsed.

It is probable, now that the new assessment framework is in place, that a renewed recommendation will lead to the restitution of Kandinsky’s painting. The Board has therefore entered into consultation with the heirs to reach a settlement agreement, after which the artwork ‘Bild mit Häusern’ by Wassily Kandinsky can be returned immediately to the (heirs of the) owners. The Council will be further informed about the results of these consultations.

‘Great news’

Lawyer Simon van der Sluijs of the Lewenstein heirs calls it ‘great news’ and a ‘just decision’ by the municipality of Amsterdam. “We have been working on the case for a long time and have done a lot of research into the facts. The municipality that formally owned it was never willing to return the painting. Historical injustices are now being rectified. This is also a support for others who are trying to get back stolen works of art.”

“Redressing the injustice and suffering inflicted on the Jewish population during World War II is paramount. As the owner of the collection, the municipality has now made a decision; we will of course commit ourselves to that,” the Stedelijk Museum says.