A Canadian firm that fights for the restitution of Nazi-looted art is outraged that a painting by Wassily Kandinsky will remain in an Amsterdam museum rather than be returned to the descendants of its Jewish former owners. In a recent ruling, the Dutch Restitutions Committee (DRC) rejected the request from the heirs to return the 1909 Bild mit Hausern (Painting with Houses) from the Stedelijk Museum, where it still hangs.
“It’s absurd and it’s a flagrant insult,” said James Palmer, founder of Toronto-based Mondex Corporation, which works to recover fine art and other assets looted during the Nazi era. “It’s ignoring the rights of persecuted people; of people that suffered the loss both of life and of property and the torment that took place during the Holocaust.”
The painting belonged to the Lewensteins, a Jewish family in Amsterdam that collected modern art before the war. After the German invasion in May of 1940, the family’s sewing-machine business was taken over by agents appointed by the Nazis, and some members of the family fled the country. The painting was sold to the Stedelijk Museum at auction in October, 1940. During the Nazi occupation, the artworks owned by the Lewensteins would have been considered enemy property and therefore subject to confiscation, Mondex states in its request for restitution. The painting sold for 176 guilders, well below market price for Kandinsky at the time – and far less than the family paid for it more than 15 years earlier.
Today works by the famed Russian master sell for millions. Kandinsky, who was born in Moscow in 1866, was a pioneering modern abstractionist. The record for a Kandinsky sale was broken twice at the same auction last year, when two of his canvases sold for more than US$26-million and US$41-million at Sotheby’s in London. Painting with Houses, a 98-by-133-centimetre early oil on canvas, is a figurative work and foreshadows Kandinsky’s interest in abstraction.
“The painting was despoiled from its Jewish owners during World War II,” reads the formal claim for restitution, made by three people, including descendants of the Lewenstein family. The claim, which dates back to 2012, argues that it was a forced sale made under duress. The painting has been on display during the proceedings and is currently installed in the permanent collection area of the museum.
In a binding decision delivered in late October and made public on Nov. 1, the DRC ruled that the municipality of Amsterdam does not have to return the painting. “The bare fact of the Municipality purchasing a work at auction which had been in the possession of a Jewish person in October 1940 does not lead to the conclusion that this was not done in good faith,” reads the DRC document. However it does acknowledge that “the interpretation of the sale of the claimed Work cannot ... be separated from the Nazi regime.”
Details of such war-time sales can be difficult to confirm. The DRC concluded that the most probable scenario was that the painting was sold at auction in 1940 by Irma Klein, with the co-operation of her husband, Robert Lewenstein, who inherited it from his mother. (Klein and Lewenstein were separated at the time of the auction and ultimately divorced; the two descendants involved in the claim are children from his subsequent marriage to another woman.)
But the application submitted by Mondex argues the implausibility of any painting owned by Jews sold at that time – and for such a low amount – being a voluntary sale.
Further, inquiries made to the museum after the war, beginning in 1948, by the Lewenstein family regarding a 1907 Kandinsky, Das Bunte Leben (The Colourful Life) – which had been lent to the Stedelijk by the family before the war – were fruitless.
The Colourful Life is also the subject of a claim being brought by Mondex. It is now in the possession of the Lenbachhaus Museum, which is owned by the city of Munich. The Bayerische Landesbank bank, whose chief shareholder is the free state of Bavaria, claims to be the owner and says it lent the painting to the Lenbachhaus.
The family’s inquiries about The Colourful Life did not result in the Stedelijk disclosing the information that it had another Kandinsky that had belonged to the family – Painting with Houses – in its collection.
Mondex calls the museum’s behaviour in 1948 an obstruction of justice and in effect a second persecution of the family, several members of which were killed during the Holocaust.
A plaque that has been displayed with Painting with Houses at the Stedelijk reads: “It is unclear who put the work up for auction, but it is likely that the painting was not sold voluntarily.” The wall text is being rewritten, the museum says.
“We realize this painting will forever be associated with a painful history,” Margriet Schavemaker, who heads the Stedelijk’s provenance department, told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail.
The ruling is binding, but Mondex plans to go to court in the Netherlands to seek an annulment, as recommended by its Dutch lawyer Gert-Jan van den Bergh. “I find the decision deeply flawed, and irrational,” van den Bergh wrote in his interpretation. He told Palmer that the decision was made on unfounded assumptions. “The outcome is neither fair, nor just.”
The DRC’s decision excluded two of the three claimants, the children of Robert Lewenstein, arguing that the assets from the painting went to Klein in the divorce. Palmer calls this a bizarre supposition without evidence. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. The DRC then ruled that the remaining claimant, a close friend – but not a relative – of Klein, had no emotional connection to the painting.
In 2015, Palmer explained, the Netherlands introduced a balance-of-interest mechanism, permitting the DRC to strongly consider the interest of the possessor – in this case the Stedelijk Museum – as a factor in making its decision.
The ruling concluded that the museum’s interests in the painting outweigh those of the approved applicant, the one the DRC ruled had no emotional connection with it (after excluding the two family members from the claim).
“We were shocked that a governmental body like the DRC would rely upon conjecture and would ignore important evidence and would craft a decision with the obvious intention to deprive the Lewenstein family and the Lewenstein beneficiaries of their rights,” said Palmer from his Toronto office. “This essentially is a further persecution of the heirs.”
The son and daughter of Robert Lewenstein – the people excluded from the claim – sent letters earlier this year to the DRC asking for the painting’s return.
“My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and my mother and father are dead,” wrote Francesca Manuela Davis-Lewenstein in her letter. “Bild mit Hausern is a part of my family’s heritage that the Nazis tore away from us. We deserve to regain what rightfully belongs to our family.”
Schavemaker told The Globe she realizes the decision is disappointing for the applicants. “But we feel that knowing the truth about this painting is valuable for every party concerned. We have trust in the decision of the Restitutions Committee and would have accepted their verdict whichever this would have been.”