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August 27, 2021 2:26 pm
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Amsterdam to Return Painting Sold During Nazi Occupation to Jewish Heirs

avatar by Shiryn Ghermezian

A partial view of “Bild mit Häusern” by Wassily Kandinksy (1909) from the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Amsterdam’s city council has agreed to return a painting by famous Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky that was sold under duress during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands to the family of its former Jewish owners, DutchNews.il reported on Friday.

Simon van der Sluijs, from the Lewenstein family’s law firm, said his clients are happy about the decision following a nine-year legal battle. He added, “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.”

The Lewensteins must now decide whether or not the Kandinsky painting will remain on public display.

In December 2020, a Dutch court ruled that the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam was entitled to keep the “Bild mit Häusern” (“Painting With House,” 1909) because of its “important art historical value.” The verdict upheld a 2018 decision by the Dutch Restitutions Committee, which also said that David Röell, director of the Stedelijk Museum, purchased the painting at auction though honest and fair dealings.

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Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema and Duty Mayor Touria Meliani, who is responsible for arts and culture in the city, told the council they have chosen not wait for the outcome of a re-evaluation by the committee amid new government rules about restitution claims. They wrote in a letter on Thursday that “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.”

The painting was sold at auction in 1940 by Robert Lewenstein whose father, Emanuel, was the owner of a sewing factory and art collector who bought it in 1923. The Lewenstein family said they fell into financial difficulties under the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands in 1940 and were forced by Nazi forces to sell the Kandinsky painting.

The Restitutions Committee wrote in their ruling that the sale of the painting cannot “be considered in isolation from the Nazi regime” and that it was also “caused to an extent” by the fact that its Jewish owners experienced “deteriorating financial circumstances” that preceded the Nazi occupation, The New York Times reported. The commission also wrote that the work “has a significant place” in the Stedelijk’s collection.

The Restitutions Committee had been widely criticized over the years for refusing to return Nazi looted art to heirs of their former owners because they consider the museum’s interests in holding the items more important, according to DutchNews.il.

After former Home Affairs Minister Jacob Kohnstamm condemned the committee’s evaluation process in December and called it “unjust in principle,” Minister of Education, Culture and Since Ingrid van Engelshoven announced new methods of assessing restitution claims to achieve “the best possible remedy for the unprecedented historical injustice.”

“Restitution is more than just the return of a cultural object,” van Engelshoven said in March. “It is an acknowledgment of the injustice done to the original owners and a contribution to the correction of this injustice.”

The government of the Netherlands also revealed in June new measures ensuring that “heirless art” looted from Jewish owners and now in the possession of the government will be turned over to Jewish institutions if the original owners or their heirs cannot be found.

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