Dutch officials, citing their “moral duty,” gave over the work which had been held by the Stedelijk Museum since 1940.
Feb. 28, 2022
The City of Amsterdam on Monday handed over a painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky to heirs of a Jewish couple who had sold it as they tried to escape the Netherlands after the Nazi invasion during World War II.
The 1909 work, “Painting With Houses,” had been held since 1940 by the Stedelijk Museum, which is responsible for the city of Amsterdam’s 95,000-item art collection.
In a statement, the city said it had reached an agreement with the heirs of the couple, Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein, “on the basis of mutual respect” and settled an ownership dispute that began years ago.
“As a city, we bear a great responsibility for dealing with the indescribable suffering and injustice inflicted on the Jewish population in the Second World War,” Touria Meliani, a deputy mayor, said in the statement. “To the extent that anything can be restored, we as a society have a moral duty to act accordingly.”
The issue of whether to return the work had become part of a broader debate over how Dutch authorities should evaluate restitution requests.
David Röell, the former director of the Stedelijk, acquired the painting during an auction in 1940.
It is unclear who decided to sell the painting but the auction took place just months after the Nazi invasion and the museum has acknowledged it is “possible that this had been an involuntary sale.”
The Dutch Restitutions Commission, a national panel that handles claims of Nazi looting, found in 2018 that the Stedelijk could keep the painting. That decision was one of several in which the restitution panel said it was balancing the interests of cultural institutions against those of people trying to recover artworks that are said to have been seized during World War II.
The restitution panel found that “Painting With Houses” had previously belonged to Mr. Lewenstein and Ms. Klein but also said that its transfer had to have been caused, to some extent, by “the deteriorating financial circumstances in which the two found themselves well before the German invasion.”
In addition, the panel found that while one claimant, an heir to Ms. Klein, “has no special bond with” the painting, the work “has a significant place” in the Stedelijk’s collection.
The panel’s decision was upheld by a Dutch court. But a committee convened by the Dutch culture minister later faulted the restitution panel’s “balance of interests” approach, leading two members of the restitution commission, including its chairman, to resign.
A year ago, Amsterdam’s mayor and several other officials, known collectively as the College of Mayor and Alderpersons, wrote that they agreed with the findings that argued for greater empathy in the restitution process.
“The suffering inflicted on Jewish citizens in particular during the Second World War is unprecedented and irreversible,” they wrote, adding that society had “a moral obligation” to redress that.
Then, last summer, the mayor, Femke Halsema, announced that she had begun discussions to turn over the painting to the heirs of its former owners. The decision to do so, however, was contingent upon approval by the City Council.
The city of Amsterdam appeared to take the view that whether Mr. Lewenstein and Ms. Klein had experienced financial distress before selling the painting mattered less than the fact that the sale took place after Nazi forces had entered the Netherlands.
The heirs and city agreed that the restitution “does justice to the principle of returning works of art that were involuntarily removed from possession during the Second World War due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime,” according to a statement announcing the transfer.
James Palmer of the Mondex Corporation, a company that pursues restitution claims and has been assisting the heirs, said: “Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the journey of the Lewenstein family to achieve the justice, dignity and respect that they have been rightfully seeking for so many years.”