Süddeutsche Zeitung: Last Chance



February 25, 2021, 5:53 p.m. Nazi looted art

The painting ‘Picture with Houses’ (1909) by Wassily Kandinsky hangs in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

(Photo: picture alliance / dpa / Collectie S)

No more valuing museum interests higher than the rights of dispossessed Jews: In Amsterdam, the looted art case around Kandinsky’s “picture with houses” could be reopened.

From Kia Vahland

In the Netherlands, Nazi-looted art is much more fundamentally disputed than in Germany. It’s not just about which works in public museums were squeezed from Jewish collectors during National Socialism. Instead, there is also a “weighing of interests” in the room, which means that not only the interests of the dispossessed and their heirs should be taken into account, but also the interests of the Dutch, who have got used to seeing the works in the museum. The rights of private owners, which are otherwise not an issue in the Netherlands, are put into perspective when it comes to the suffering of Jews under National Socialism. The State Restitution Commission itself took this position until recently.

But there is now resistance to this. First the lawyer Jacob Kohnstamm protested, who evaluated the work of the Dutch Restitution Commission on behalf of the government. The return of stolen or extorted art to the heirs of the collectors is “one of the last tangible possibilities for legal reparation” and therefore of immense importance for the families and the Jewish community concerned. This objection found the sympathy of the Dutch Minister of Culture Ingrid van Engelshoven. As a result, those members of the Restitution Commission resigned who presumably see things differently.

The Amsterdam mayor demands that the return of Kandinsky’s “picture with houses” be considered

But will the change in mood also result in deeds? It didn’t look like that at first, after all, the courts had already confirmed the decisions of the Restitution Commission. But now Amsterdam’s mayor Femke Halsema and the city council are also distancing themselves from weighing up interests. That could lead to a turning point in one of the most prominent cases of Nazi-looted art: The city’s Stedelijk Museum has Wassily Kandinsky’s “Picture with Houses”, which it bought at a Nazi auction in 1940. The painting comes from the property of the Jewish Lewenstein family from Amsterdam. Their heirs are demanding the restitution of this painting and of Kandinsky’s “The Colorful Life”, which is now owned by the Bayerische Landesbank and which adorns the Lenbachhaus in Munich as one of the main works.

So far, the Amsterdam museum people were of the opinion that it was enough to hang a sign with the story next to the “picture with houses”, after all, both the restitution commission and a court had refused the restitution. But now the mayor herself says that they do not want any looted property and demands that the case be reopened. Lewenstein’s heirs, represented by the art research agency Mondex, demand an immediate return of the “picture with houses”.