Amsterdam council to return 20 million euros in works of art to family of former Jewish owners

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A nine-year legal battle that turned the international art world upside down unexpectedly ended with the Amsterdam City Council’s decision to unilaterally return a 20 million euro work of art by Wassily Kandinsky to the family of its former Jewish owners.

The council’s decision runs counter to a decision by the Netherlands Restitution Commission in 2018 that the Stedelijk Municipal Museum of Modern Art could keep the painting because it was purchased “in good faith” in October 1940 and was of “great historical interest in art”. value”.

The case was seen as a litmus test for the moral authority of the commission – which was established to deal with claims regarding works of art confiscated or looted during the Nazi occupation – and whose ruling in the case Kandinsky was confirmed by an Amsterdam court last year.

Plaintiffs in the case – who have not been publicly named – said the owners of the pre-war painting, Robert Lewenstein and his wife Irma Klein, were forced to sell it “under duress” because their tailoring factory in Amsterdam was no longer viable under occupation.

Their lawyers pointed out during the case that the 160 guilders paid by the Stedelijk Museum to buy the work at auction represented only 30% of the 500 guilders that Mr. Lewenstein’s father, Emmanuel Lewenstein, had initially paid in 1923. .

They also noted that the World Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany considered the painting to be stolen.

However, rather than end the controversy, the court’s decision sparked an outcry and opened a new chapter in the controversial story of “bild mit hausern” or “painting with houses”, completed by the Russian artist in 1909 while studying in Munich.

A spokesperson for the plaintiffs called the judgment a “second plunder of the painting”, adding that “the first was issued by the Nazis and the second by the Dutch Restitution Commission, now in collaboration with the Amsterdam City Court” .

Principle

The influential former Home Minister, Jacob Kohnstamm, called the two decisions “unfair in principle” because it was unacceptable to take the interests of museums into account when returning looted works of art.

He was supported by Culture Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, who said public expectations had changed. Preserving works of art on the basis of their cultural significance was no longer acceptable. What was needed instead was “restorative justice”.

Two members of the restitution commission have resigned.

Faced with the prospect of an appeal against last year’s court ruling, Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema made it clear what the bright side of the story was and wrote to the city council last Friday for him say that the work would be returned immediately.

The decision was made, she said, because of the time that has passed and “in the interest of righting the wrongs.”


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