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Restitution

Amsterdam court rejects heirs’ claim for Kandinsky painting in the Stedelijk Museum

Ruling upholds controversial decision by the beleaguered Dutch Restitutions Committee but counters an independent review

Kandinsky's Painting With Houses (1909) Stedelijk Museum

An Amsterdam court has rejected a claim by the heirs of Emanuel Lewenstein, a Jewish sewing-machine trader, for a 1909 painting by Wassily Kandinsky in the Stedelijk Museum, upholding a widely contested recommendation issued by the Dutch Restitutions Committee.

Kandinsky’s Painting With Houses was sold in October 1940, possibly by Lewenstein’s son Robert or his wife. Robert Lewenstein emigrated to France in 1939 and then fled to the US in 1940 to escape the Nazis. But although the painting was sold after the occupation of the Netherlands by German troops, the Restitutions Committee determined that it could not definitively be classified as a sale resulting from Nazi persecution.

The heirs challenged this recommendation at the District Court in Amsterdam, arguing that the Restitutions Committee was biased because four members had links to the Stedelijk and that the recommendation was flawed. The court rejected their arguments. The claimants will file an appeal in the next three months, said James Palmer, the founder of the Mondex Corporation, which helps clients with the recovery of art looted during the Second World War. “This is not acceptable,” Palmer said by phone.

The city of Amsterdam, as the owner of the Stedelijk’s collection, says it is “well aware that this is disappointing for the claimants”. The painting “will forever be linked to a painful history”, it adds, saying that the museum and city “consider it important that the history of its collection is researched as thoroughly as possible”.

The Restitutions Committee’s 2018 decision drew international criticism. Two leading claimants’ representatives warned in an opinion piece in a Dutch newspaper that Dutch government policy in handling Nazi-looted art claims for works in public museums puts it “at risk of becoming a pariah” as the “smallest and most chilling distinctions are being made in order to allow museums to keep their collections intact”.

The two experts, Anne Webber of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe and Wesley Fisher of the Jewish Claims Conference, highlighted the recommendation in the Lewenstein case as an example. They took the committee to task for weighing the interest of a museum in keeping a work of art against the claimant’s interest in recovering it, and criticised the panel for establishing “a hierarchy of loss in which they say that seizure and confiscation rank higher than forced sale”.

Criticism of the Restitutions Committee’s policy prompted the Dutch government to order a review by an independent panel led by Jacob Kohnstamm, a former politician. The review, published last week, urged a policy “oriented more towards humanity, transparency and good will” and said the Netherlands’ reputation in handling Nazi-looted art claims “has been undermined by a limited number of requests for restitution that have been rejected in recent years”. Alfred Hammerstein, the chairman of the Restitutions Committee, resigned a week before the report was made public.

Though Kohnstamm’s review did not identify any specific decisions as damaging to the panel’s reputation, it urged the Restitutions Committee to end the controversial “balance of interest” policy, which was key to the committee’s decision in the Lewenstein case. That decision determined that the painting “has important art historical value and is an essential link in the limited overview of Kandinsky’s work in the museum’s collection” while the claimant had declared “no past emotional or other intense bond with the work”.

The Kohnstamm report also stipulated that “involuntary dispossession will be assumed if dispossession occurred in the Netherlands after 10 May 1940”, as was the case with the Kandinsky.

Today court’s decision, Palmer says, is “completely contrary to Kohnstamm’s findings”.