The restitution of art stolen by the Nazis to the Jewish community brings together emotional, legal and administrative elements that can lengthen for years the process of returning works that were confiscated, or sold under pressure during World War II. The case of Robert Lewenstein, a Dutch collector who in 1940 escaped to France with his family fleeing German occupation, has followed this tortuous path from 2013 until history has turned upside down. The Amsterdam City Council has decided to return the oil to their descendants Painting with houses (1909), by Vasili Kandisnky, although it has not been possible to prove the theft of it by the invading forces. Valued according to the Dutch media at 20 million euros, the mayor, Femke Halsema, wants to amend “the historical injustice of the suffering of the Jewish population during the war.” The canvas hangs on the Stedelijk museum, Amsterdam, which is also the municipal collection and one of the most important modern and contemporary art rooms in Europe. Those responsible have already announced that, “obviously”, they assume the council agreement.
The City Council explains that his gesture “is a moral obligation that includes generously returning art of this kind”, and thereby ends a litany of attempts to recover the kandinsky by descendants. It can also mean a change of attitude towards hundreds of works of this origin that still hang today in Dutch museums, but also in other countries. And it shakes the Stedelijk collection, which has exhibited the canvas as one of its landmark pieces for eighty years. This was acquired without knowing its origin, as they point out.
The case of the Lewensteins is unique, because the work was part of the family collection – also with four by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Renoir and Manet – before the war. In 1940, Robert, who made a fortune from the sale of sewing machines, escaped with his family to France and the Amsterdam City Council bought the painting at auction for 160 florins of the time. In 1923, Lewenstein himself had paid 500 guilders for the cloth, and the descendants maintain that such purchases, at such a low price, show that it was a forced sale. Their arguments did not convince the Dutch Commission for the Restitution of Art Confiscated by the Nazis, which focused its 2018 report on this case on the “lack of evidence to show the reasons why the painting was sold, as the family had economic problems before the outbreak of the conflict ”. The experts, who depend on the Ministry of Culture, added that Irma Klein, Robert’s widow, “did not try to recover fabric after the war,” and neither did they believe that “the emotional bond of the descendants” with the work was demonstrated. On the contrary, it did seem “essential to the museum’s collection.” Although the family had agreed to accept the commission’s decision, they considered its arguments absurd and went to court. They sued the City Council and the museum, but in 2020 they lost the case. Kandinsky’s painting stayed in the Stedelijk, yes, with an explanation of its history.
That same year, the situation took a turn at the hands of other scholars: the so-called Kohnstamm Commission, charged with investigating the way in which the Netherlands has approached the problem of art looted by the Nazis. They concluded that some 3,800 pieces held by the state come from the world war, and their main recommendation shook the Ministry of Culture, since it downplayed the interests of museums. “They should never play a role if the art was stolen; the important thing is to look for the owners or their heirs ”, they said. Axel Hagedorn, a lawyer for the Lewensteins, then explained that “applying the commission’s findings retroactively to our case will be a political issue.” The lawyer also pointed out that “four of the seven members of the Restitution Committee had professional ties to Stedelijk”, and did not seem to him an independent team. The Amsterdam City Council has now endorsed the moral commitment set by the Kohnstamm Commission, without waiting for the Restitution Commission to review this case, and is already in contact with the relatives of Robert Lewenstein.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.