Dutch art panel's rul­ing against Jewish fam­ily crit­i­cised as 'step back'

The Guardian Australia - - World News - Daniel Bof­fey in Brussels

The de­ci­sion of a Dutch art com­mit­tee to back one of the Nether­lands’ most pres­ti­gious mu­se­ums in its at­tempt to hold on to a prized paint­ing ob­tained from a Jewish fam­ily in 1940 has sparked an in­ter­na­tional out­cry over the fate of Nazi loot across Europe.

The bind­ing rul­ing against the de­scen­dants of Emanuel Lewen­stein has come un­der heavy crit­i­cism af­ter it emerged that the com­mit­tee had taken into ac­count the need to main­tain the “pub­lic art stock”.

The rea­son­ing has been de­scribed as a “step back” by Stu­art Eizen­stat, the US diplo­mat be­hind the Wash­ing­ton prin­ci­ples, a 1998 agree­ment un­der which 44 coun­tries in­clud­ing the Nether­lands com­mit­ted them­selves to the re­turn of 600,000 pieces of art stolen by the Nazis.

At a con­fer­ence in Ber­lin last week to cel­e­brate the sec­ond decade of the prin­ci­ples, Ron­ald Lauder, the pres­i­dent of the Jewish World Congress, ex­pressed con­cern and sug­gested Dutch moral lead­er­ship on the is­sue had been dented. The Nether­lands is one of only five gov­ern­ments to have es­tab­lished resti­tu­tion bod­ies.

The claim by Lewen­stein’s heirs to a 1909 work by Kandin­sky known as Paint­ing with Houses was first made in De­cem­ber 2013 and it has taken five years of re­search and le­gal ar­gu­ment to set­tle.

The de­scen­dants ar­gued that the ex­pres­sion­ist work was sold to Am­s­ter­dam’s St­edelijk Mu­seum un­der duress at auc­tion in 1940, five months af­ter Ger­many in­vaded the coun­try.

The un­named heirs said the wa­ter­colour was pur­chased for a “mod­est sum” and the sale was not made in good faith.

The com­mit­tee, which was es­tab­lished by the Dutch gov­ern­ment in 2002, and com­pris­ing lawyers and art his­to­ri­ans, con­firmed the sale was made be­tween 8 and 9 Oc­to­ber 1940 at the Fred­erik Muller auc­tion house in Am­s­ter­dam, and said the trans­ac­tion should be seen in the con­text of the times and that the Lewen­stein fam­ily would have had a clear un­der­stand­ing of their prob­a­ble fate un­der the Nazi regime.

How­ever, the com­mit­tee ruled that there was ev­i­dence to sug­gest the fam­ily had long been in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties. It said Lewen­stein’s im­me­di­ate fam­ily had a good re­la­tion­ship with the mu­seum af­ter the war and did not try to re­trieve the paint­ing.

It ad­di­tion­ally stressed the need to as­sess in its de­lib­er­a­tions the “re­spec­tive im­por­tance of the work to both par­ties and of the pub­lic art stock” and to “take into ac­count the in­ter­ests of the ap­pli­cant in resti­tu­tion of the art­work and the in­ter­ests of [Am­s­ter­dam] city coun­cil in re­tain­ing the work”.

The mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Am­s­ter­dam ar­gued in its re­but­tal to the fam­ily’s claim that the piece was im­por­tant to the mu­seum as it was “on per­ma­nent dis­play and … the es­sen­tial link in the lim­ited over­view of Kandin­sky’s work in the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion”.

A spokesman for the St­edelijk said: “We can only stress that the mu­seum would have ac­cepted any out­come, as the rul­ing of the com­mit­tee is bind­ing for both par­ties, and that we re­alise that this paint­ing will for­ever re­main con­nected to a painful his­tory.”

The abil­ity of the resti­tu­tion com­mit­tee to take into ac­count the state of the stock of pub­lic art was in­tro­duced in 2013.

Its chair­man, Fred Ham­mer­stein, de­nied that the move was un­just, telling the Dutch news­pa­per De Trouw: “This state­ment, which has been looked at for a long time and care­fully, is not a step back­wards but in line with ear­lier rec­om­men­da­tions. That is why the crit­i­cism is no rea­son for us to move away from this weigh­ing of in­ter­ests. We are not out of step in­ter­na­tion­ally.”

The Dutch resti­tu­tion com­mit­tee is al­ready at the cen­tre of a law­suit filed by an Amer­i­can heir to a for­mer Jewish art gallery part­ner­ship. Bruce Berg, a grand­son of the late Ben­jamin Katz and a great-nephew of the late Nathan Katz, broth­ers and part­ners in the Firma D Katz part­ner­ship, al­leges that 143 paint­ings are in the wrong­ful pos­ses­sion of the Dutch gov­ern­ment and a num­ber of pri­vate and pub­lic mu­se­ums in the Nether­lands.

The case be­ing heard in the US district court of South Carolina in­volves works by Dutch old masters such as Fer­di­nand Bol, Pi­eter Claesz, Jan Steen and the Rem­brandt school. It is claimed that the paint­ings were sold or traded un­der duress to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Nazi regime be­tween mid-1940 and 1942.

Joel An­drophy, a lawyer act­ing for Berg and Katz, said it was tak­ing the le­gal ac­tion as pre­vi­ous claims made to the resti­tu­tion com­mit­tee had been “largely de­nied”.

He said: “The paint­ings were des­tined for Adolf Hitler’s fu­ture Führermu­seum in Linz, Aus­tria, or for the mas­sive art col­lec­tion of Re­ichs mar­shall Her­mann Göring. Göring him­self even paid a ter­ri­fy­ing visit to Firma D Katz, ac­com­pa­nied by armed guards, to in­spect and select the paint­ings.”

Pho­to­graph: World His­tory Archive/Alamy

A de­tail from Paint­ing with Houses (1909) by Wass­ily Kandin­sky.

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