Dutch Jewish Family Experience Setback in Attempt to Recover Masterpiece Stolen by Nazis
A Jewish family seeking the return of a $35 million painting stolen during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands that is still on display at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum has accused an official committee of bias after it ruled against them.
Lawyers acting for the heirs to Robert Lewenstein, who fled for France in 1940, told an Amsterdam court there was an “appearance of partiality and a conflict of interest” within the Netherlands’ restitutions committee, which advises on the return of art lost by Jewish families during the World War II, The Guardian reported on Monday.
Three members of the Lewenstein family — Robert Lewenstein, Francesca Davis and Elsa Guidotti — are seeking the return of Bild mit Häusern (“Painting with Houses”), painted by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky in 1909.
It was sold at a cut price to Amsterdam’s City Council, which runs the Stedelijk Museum, on October 9, 1940, at the Frederik Muller auction house — five months after the Nazi occupation commenced. Lewenstein and his wife had already fled to France by the time of the sale.
Simon van der Sluijs, a lawyer for the claimants, told the court in Amsterdam the idea that the sale was voluntary was “bizarre.”
“Immediately after the invasion, the Germans started looting art. Pressure and coercion and the justified fear that lived among the Jews were used,” he said. “That fear did not pass by the Lewenstein family. The Nazis marched past their offices on Dam Square. To label the auction of works of art belonging to the Lewenstein family as voluntary is bizarre.”
The claim of bias was denied by Paul Loeb, representing the Stedelijk Museum and the City of Amsterdam, who told the court that none of the committee members had a financial interest in the museum or had ever been employed by it.
“The restitutions committee has performed its task properly,” Loeb said. “There is no reason to revisit or redo the work. They are competent and able to assess the case. There are also no indications that the painting was stolen.”
One of the pioneers of modern art, Kandinsky left Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, spending more than a decade in Germany, where he taught at the influential Bauhaus architectural school.
One of Kandinsky’s colleagues, the Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, recalled that the painter often expressed antisemitic views. When Schoenberg challenged him, Kandinsky reportedly replied, “I reject you as a Jew.”