Saturday 10 December 2022

Amsterdam to restore disputed Kandinsky to Jewish family

Wassily Kandinsky’s Bild mit Häusern will be returned to its former owners.

Amsterdam city council has agreed to return a painting by Wassily Kandinsky sold during the Nazi occupation to the family of its former Jewish owners, ending a nine-year legal tussle.

A Dutch court ruled in December 2020 that the Stedelijk Museum was entitled to keep the 1909 work, Bild mit Häusern, because of its ‘important art historical value’. The court upheld a decision by the Restitutions Committee, which also said the city had bought the painting in 1940 in good faith.

Mayor Femke Halsema and alderman for culture Touria Meliani told the council they were not prepared to wait for the outcome of a re-evaluation by the committee in the light of new guidelines on disputed art.

‘In view of the long time period and the importance of redressing injustice, we will return the work without a new intervention by the Restitutions Committee,’ Halsema and Meliani wrote in a letter.

The painting was acquired at auction in 1940 for 160 guilders. It was sold by Robert Lewenstein, whose father, Emanuel, was the owner of a sewing factory and an art collector who bought it in 1923.

The Lewenstein family said they had fallen into financial hardship under the Nazi occupation and sold the work under duress, but the committee said their difficulties had begun earlier.

Simon van der Sluijs, from the family’s law firm, told ‘We are very happy about this decision. We see this as a form of historical injustice that is now corrected, and it’s not so often that you have a chance to do that.

‘Unfortunately, in February, one of the heirs died, and the litigation has been going on since 2013, so it’s a shame she didn’t live to see this.’

‘Unjust in principle’

The Restitutions Committee had faced growing criticism in recent years for refusing to return several stolen artworks to the relatives of their former owners because the interests of the museum holding the item were deemed more significant.

The court ruling last December came as a surprise because it appeared to contradict a report published the same month by former home affairs minister Jacob Kohnstamm, who said that the committee’s evaluation process was ‘unjust in principle’.

In the wake of the Kohnstamm report, culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven said the committee would no longer be allowed to justify retaining artworks on the basis of their cultural significance and was required to focus on the ‘restoration of injustice’.

The family now has to decide whether the Kandinsky, which has an estimated value of €20 million, will remain on public display.

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