In Surprise Ruling, Kandinsky Painting Will Not Be Returned to Jewish Collector Heirs

Last December, tensions over the national restitution policy in the Netherlands came to a head. The Amsterdam District Court upheld the 2018 ruling in a major case and dismissed claims by the heirs of a Jewish art collector that a painting by Wassily Kandinsky from 1909 in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum was forcibly sold and returned by the Nazis. The verdict came as a surprise to some, as a recent government-commissioned report criticized the panel that made the original decision for lacking empathy and advocating too often for Jewish victims and heirs in museums. In particular, the report criticized a “balancing of interests” policy that the panel has used in its decision-making process on several high profile cases, including the Kandinsky case.

Kandinsky’s “Picture with Apartments” is a colorful oil painting of a figure kneeling in front of a row of houses in a landscape with a turbulent perspective. The multi-million dollar work has been in the Stedelijk Museum’s collection since the Amsterdam City Council bought the piece on October 9, 1940 at the Frederik Muller auction house. The alleged sellers of the painting were Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein, a Jewish couple in the middle of a divorce at the time of the sale. At the time of the sale, Robert Lewenstein had already fled the Netherlands, which were occupied by the Nazis in May 1940. The council bought the work for 160 guilders, drastically reduced from the 500 guilders that Lewenstein’s father, an art collector and sewing machine manufacturer, had paid for the work 17 years earlier. “Painting with Houses” has been the subject of refund claims since 2012.

In the Netherlands, an independent body, the Dutch Restitutions Committee, is responsible for assessing restitution claims for artifacts from the Dutch state looted by the Nazis. In a binding decision from 2018, the committee rejected a request to return the painting, stating that there was no evidence of a forced sale, so the city was not obliged to return the work. The move was angered by proponents of the restitution, many of whom argued that the decision violated a key principle of the 2001 committee that “the sale of works of art by Jewish private individuals in the Netherlands from May 10, 1940 should be treated as forced sales, unless there is explicit evidence to the contrary. “The committee cited Lewenstein’s deteriorating finances prior to the Nazi occupation as evidence that the sale was voluntary and that the work had not been stolen or confiscated.

A balance of interests argument that went into the decision of the committee. First adopted by the committee in 2012, the guideline is used to assess the importance of the work to the applicant versus the current owner of the work. It has been widely criticized for privileging the interests of museums. “The committee took into account the interests of Irma Klein’s heir and the city council in its final conclusion,” said the written statement. It is further argued that the “heir has no particular attachment to the painting” and that “the work has a significant place in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum”, which includes a significant number of pieces by Kandinsky.

The heirs appealed the case and took it to a civil court. Not only did they allege that the judgment violated the 2001 forced sale principle and that the Commission’s origins research was inadequate, but also alleged that four of the seven members of the Restitutions Committee were specifically targeted at the Stedelijk Museum. While the committee’s decision was technically binding, there appeared to be a good chance the verdict will be overturned. Public outcry over the ruling on this and related cases, including an extermination by restitution experts Wesley Fisher and Anne Webber, published in NRC Handelsblad in 2018, prompted the Dutch government to commission an independent review of the committee, led by a Dutch politician to give and attorney Jacob Kohnstamm.

Kohnstamm’s report, published December 7, 2020, recommends that the committee systematically conduct active provenance research, a practice it abandoned in 2005. try to make the reimbursement process less opaque and bureaucratic; and to drop the balancing of interests policy, instead adopting an approach that is more “sensitive” to applicants. The report also reiterates that works sold after May 10, 1940 should be treated as forced sales. While the Restitution Committee declared in a statement that it welcomed the “constructive recommendations in the report”, the committee chairman Alfred Hammerstein resigned shortly before the report was published without giving any reason. Encouraged by the results of the report, Rob Lewenstein, one of the petitioners, told Dutch News, “It has to be positive for our case and for anyone else trying to bring artwork back … I think it will change, like everything This will be done in the future. “

Nine days later, on December 16, the Dutch court upheld the committee’s decision on Kandinsky, a decision the applicants’ attorney, Axel Hagedorn, told the New York Times, given the recent publication of the report and legal reasons of the case. According to the Amsterdam-based newspaper Het Parool, the court found that there were “no serious flaws” in the committee’s research and deliberations as to the origin of the painting. As a result, the binding recommendation could not and should not be reversed.

The City of Amsterdam, which owns the Stedelijk Museum collection, issued a written statement on the decision. “We are aware that this is disappointing for applicants,” the statement said. “This painting will forever be tied to a painful story. The relationship between our collection and World War II will always be important; We will continue to show information about it to the public, online and also in the gallery. “The Stedelijk plans to revise the wall text next to the painting to reflect the origin of the work. The museum website has been updated.

“After many years of fighting, the Lewenstein family is very disappointed that the Amsterdam District Court has not recognized the Lewenstein family’s rights to return their property that was abused during the Holocaust,” Hagedorn said in a statement. Applicants plan to appeal in the coming months.

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