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

Kandinsky’s painting with houses (1909)
city ​​Museum

An Amsterdam court has rejected a claim by the heirs of the Jewish sewing machine dealer Emanuel Lewenstein for a painting by Wassily Kandinsky from 1909 in the Stedelijk Museum and confirmed a widely controversial recommendation by the Dutch Restitution Committee.

Kandinsky’s painting of houses was sold in October 1940, possibly by Lewenstein’s son Robert or his wife. Robert Lewenstein emigrated to France in 1939 and fled to the USA in 1940 to escape the Nazis. Although the painting was sold after the Netherlands was occupied by German troops, the Restitution Committee found that it could not definitely be classified as a sale due to Nazi persecution.

The heirs challenged this recommendation in the District Court in Amsterdam, arguing that the Restitution Committee was biased because four members had ties to the Stedelijk and the recommendation was flawed. The court rejected their arguments. Applicants will appeal within the next three months, said James Palmer, founder of Mondex Corporation, which helps clients restore art that was looted during World War II. “That is not acceptable,” said Palmer over the phone.

The City of Amsterdam, as the owner of the Stedelijk Collection, says it is “aware that this is disappointing for applicants”. The painting “will forever be tied to a painful story,” it adds, saying that the museum and the city “consider it important that the history of its collection be researched as thoroughly as possible”.

The decision of the Restitutions Committee in 2018 met with international criticism. Two leading representatives of the applicants warned in an opinion piece in a Dutch newspaper that the policy of the Dutch government in dealing with Nazi-looted art claims for works in public museums “risks becoming pariah” because of “the smallest and most appalling differences exist “made so that museums can keep their collections intact”.

The two experts Anne Webber from the Commission on Looted Art in Europe and Wesley Fisher from the Jewish Claims Conference highlighted the recommendation in the Lewenstein case as an example. They challenged the committee to balance a museum’s interest in preserving a work of art against the applicant’s interest in recovering it, and criticized the committee for creating a “hierarchy of losses in which they claim that confiscation and confiscation are higher.” are considered a forced sale “.

The criticism of the policy of the Restitutions Committee led the Dutch government to order a review by an independent body under the direction of the former politician Jacob Kohnstamm. The review released last week called for policies “more focused on humanity, transparency and goodwill” and said the Netherlands’ reputation for dealing with Nazi-looted art claims “has been undermined by a limited number of requests for restitution, which have been rejected in recent years “. Alfred Hammerstein, chairman of the Restitutions Committee, resigned a week before the report was published.

Although Kohnstamm’s review did not identify specific decisions as detrimental to the panel’s reputation, he called on the Restitutions Committee to end the controversial “reconciliation of interests” policy that was critical to the panel’s decision on the Lewenstein case. This decision stated 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 applicant had stated “no previous emotional or other intense attachment to the work” .

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

Today’s court decision, says Palmer, “completely contradicts the findings of Kohnstamm.”

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