SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

In 2018, the Dutch Restitutions Commission rejected a claim for a Wassily Kandinsky work, Painting With Houses, which is held by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

NAZI-LOOTED ART – Restitution finally comes in the Netherlands

At a large, unobtrusive storage depot in Amersfoort, called Collectiecentrum Nederland, 30,000 m2 are devoted to housing the Dutch national art collections. It is also the country’s leading centre for research and contains thousands of paintings stolen by the Nazis mostly from Jewish owners. The problem: some 80 years later, many of these art works remain here in storage.

Alfred Fass, whose German Jewish family owned a huge art collection including works by Rubens, Manet and Courbet, has spent years negotiating with the Dutch government in an effort to reclaim some of the family’s stolen art work. “You have to prove again and again that you are the rightful owner” Fass told Aljazeera. “Because at the end of the day, I doubt that they want to give it back.”

Part of the problem is how looted art is defined. In Germany, anything sold by Jews since January 1933, when Hitler came to power, is regarded as looted art. However, the Netherlands adopted a much narrower definition; only art sold by Jews between 1940 and 1945 was considered to be looted. So German-Jewish refugees like the Isay-Adelberger family, who sold art in the Netherlands in 1939, were not eligible for restitution.  

The Restitution Committee in the Netherlands, tasked with overseeing the return of looted art work to its owners, is a signatory to the Washington Principals (1998). Countries who signed the Principals agreed that just solutions must be found for the restitution of Jewish-owned art stolen or forcibly sold under the Nazi regime Over twenty years later, the Netherlands has yet to fully implement the  covenant.  

Uniquely, specific provisions in the regulations of the Restitution Committee prioritise the idea of balancing the interests of national museums against those of the original owners of looted art work. This surely runs contrary to the idea of just reparation for the thousands of Jewish families who lost everything at the hands of the Nazi regime. Indeed, no other country has taken such an approach, admits Martha Vissa, legal specialist in the field.

But things are changing. New Chairman of the Restitution Committee, Jacob Kohnstamm, agrees that the length of time it has taken to prioritize the rights of Jewish families in the Netherlands is “shameful”*. A recent report by the Dutch Council for Culture recommends that works of art stolen from Dutch Jews during World War II and returned from Germany by allied troops, be restored to the Jewish community, if the original owners cannot be found.

Currently there are 3700 works of art up for review, 1700 of which are paintings. The Cultural Heritage Agency will have four years in which to review these artworks. They will apply a broader definition of looted art which places the interests of the Jewish heirs at the forefront rather than those of the museums. New technology, digitized historical newspapers and improved archives will help researchers but it is still a difficult process to unpick the hidden mysteries of what are essentially 80-year-old cold cases.

Yet for those who have lost so much already, the return of a treasured family heirloom represents not only the promise of financial reparation but also provides a measure of emotional solace that is far more difficult to quantify. Souwie Buis  August 2022

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