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Art & Architecture Mondex to return valuable Dutch paintings to Holocaust survivor’s descendants

Banquet scene with musicians and shuffle board players in an interior.

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A Canadian firm that fights for the return of Nazi-era looted artworks has won the return of two valuable 17th-century Dutch paintings to the heirs of the original owner, who was forced to sell them during the Second World War.

Banquet scene with musicians and shuffle board players in an interior (1628) by Dirck Franchoisz Hals and Dirck van Delen, which has been at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands; and Still life with glass, glass stand and musical instruments (1665-70) by Jan Davidsz. de Heem, which has been at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, will be returned to the descendants of Holocaust survivor Jacob Lierens.

Lierens and his wife, who were Jewish, were imprisoned in a concentration camp for a period during the war, but brokered their release with a large cash payment, after which they went into hiding, financed by the sale of their possessions. They survived the war, but one of their daughters was murdered in Auschwitz, as was her husband.

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The two paintings in question were auctioned in October, 1941, during the Nazi occupation. The sale of artworks by private Jewish individuals during the German occupation is considered to be a forced sale, unless the facts expressly show otherwise. The Dutch Restitutions Committee (DRC) concluded that no facts contradicting a forced sale emerged in this case.

Toronto-based Mondex Corporation brought the case to a hearing in The Hague in January. This week, the DRC issued its ruling that the paintings should be returned to Lierens’s heirs. (Lierens died in 1949.)

“Can you imagine the relief?” says Mondex founder James Palmer, who was in The Netherlands for the hearing and met the Lierens’s granddaughter, now 85, and her son on that trip. During the visit, the woman showed Mr. Palmer a class photograph from her childhood; the teacher and most of the children were wearing Jewish stars. Most of them were murdered by the Nazis.

“When I told my mother ... she was overwhelmed with joy and in tears,” David Linder told The Globe and Mail by e-mail from The Netherlands.

“The paintings that will be returned to her and her family have a special meaning because they symbolize life to her,” he wrote, “as her grandfather had to sell the paintings during the war ... and because of the sale he could pay for hiding places and see to it that the family did not starve during the horrendous years of Nazi occupation.”

The woman has not yet decided what to do with the paintings. Mr. Palmer says the museums have expressed an interest in purchasing them from the family. When asked what they are worth, he said “in the millions.” (Mr. Palmer would not reveal Mondex’s fee, but the company works for commission and receives a percentage of the returned artwork’s value.)

While Mr. Palmer, who was born and raised in Toronto, says he is “pleased and grateful” with the decision, he expressed disdain for the DRC’s balance-of-interest test, which instructs the committee, when deciding on the fate of a disputed artwork, to take into consideration all interests – including those of the museums that are holding the works in question.

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“That’s what the balance-of-interest test is about, is to consider not only the family of the claimants but ... just as well the interest of the museum, and that’s self-serving. It’s absurd, it’s ridiculous, it’s madness,” says Mr. Palmer, whose firm lost a high-profile case involving a Kandinsky oil last year.

The DRC took into account the interest of the possessor, another Dutch museum, in that case. Mr. Palmer says the balance-of-interest mechanism is an outrageous concept.

“You can’t ask a thief: Are you interested in keeping something that’s stolen?”

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