The city of Amsterdam on Monday handed over a painting by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky to the heirs of a Jewish couple who sold it as they tried to flee the Netherlands after the Nazi invasion in World War II .
The 1909 work, “Painting with Houses”, had been owned since 1940 by the Stedelijk Museumwho is responsible for the 95,000-piece art collection of the city of Amsterdam.
In a statement, the city said it had reached an agreement with the couple’s heirs, Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein, “on the basis of mutual respect” and resolved an ownership dispute that began decades ago. years.
“As a city, we bear a great responsibility in dealing with the untold suffering and injustice inflicted on the Jewish population during World War II,” Touria Meliani, deputy mayor, said in the statement. “To the extent that something can be restored, we as a society have a moral duty to act on it.”
The question of whether to return the work was now part of a wider debate about how the Dutch authorities should assess restitution claims.
David Röell, the former director of the Stedelijk, acquired the painting at 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 acknowledged that it was “possible that it was an unintentional sale “.
The Dutch Restitution Commission, a national panel that handles allegations of Nazi looting, concluded in 2018 that the Stedelijk could keep the painting. The decision was one of several in which the restitution committee said it weighed the interests of cultural institutions against those of people trying to recover works of art believed to have been seized during World War II.
The restitution committee concluded that “Painting With Houses” had previously belonged to Mr. Lewenstein and Ms. Klein, but also said that its transfer must have been caused, to some extent, by “the deterioration of the financial situation in which both were fine. before the German invasion.
Furthermore, the committee concluded that while one of the claimants, Ms Klein’s heir, ‘has no particular connection to’ the painting, the work ‘holds an important 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 criticized the restitution panel’s ‘balance of interests’ approach, leading two members of the restitution committee, including its chairman, to resign.
A year ago, the mayor of Amsterdam and several other officials, known collectively as the College of Mayors and Aldermen, wrote that they agreed with the findings which called for greater empathy in the restitution process.
“The suffering inflicted on Jewish citizens especially during World War II is unprecedented and irreversible,” they wrote, adding that society had “a moral obligation” to make amends.
Then, last summer, the mayor, Femke Halsema, announced that she had started discussions to hand over the painting to the heirs of its former owners. The decision to do so, however, was subject to the approval of the city council.
The city of Amsterdam seemed to consider that the fact that Mr Lewenstein and Ms Klein had experienced financial difficulties before selling the painting mattered less than the fact that the sale took place after the entry of Nazi forces into the Netherlands .
The heirs and the city have agreed that the return “does justice to the principle of returning works of art that were involuntarily removed from possession during World War II due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime,” according to a statement announcing the transfer.
James Palmer of Mondex Corporation, a company that pursues restitution claims and assists heirs, said: “Today marks the start of a new chapter in the Lewenstein family’s journey to achieve justice, dignity and peace. respect they have been rightly seeking for so many years.