In December 2020, the Amsterdam District Court elicited criticism when it upheld the Dutch Restitutions Committee’s 2018 decision to reject claims that a painting by Wassily Kandinsky in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum was sold under Nazi persecution and should be returned to the heirs of Emanuel Lewenstein. Last week, the Amsterdam municipality reversed the binding decision, announcing plans to instead restitute the painting to Lewenstein’s descendants.
In a statement, Mayor Femke Halsema and alderman for art and culture Touria Meliani said that the return will take place without going through the Restitutions Committee again, due to “the long duration of the process” (the painting has been subject to restitution claims since 2012) and “the importance of correcting wrongs of the past.” Once the College of Mayor and Alderpersons has worked out a settlement agreement with the heirs, the painting will be returned “immediately,” the statement said.
Kandinsky’s “Bild mit Häusern (Painting with Houses)” (1909) has been owned by Amsterdam — which owns the Stedelijk Museum — since 1940. That year, the painting was acquired at auction by Stedelijk Museum director David Röell for 160 guilders, about a third of the amount that Jewish sewing machine manufacturer and modern art collector Emanuel Lewenstein had paid for it 17 years prior. It was either Emanuel’s son Robert Lewenstein or Robert Lewenstein’s wife Irma Klein who consigned the piece to auction in 1940. The couple, who were divorcing, had fallen on hard times. Irma Klein, an actress, had stopped getting work years earlier because of her Jewish background. Robert Lewenstein managed to flee the newly Nazi-occupied Netherlands for the United States in 1940, but in the US, he was unable to receive payments from the family sewing machine company where he had worked as a director.
Considering the case in 2018, the Dutch Restitutions Committee decided that there was no conclusive evidence that the work had been forcibly sold or purchased in bad faith; the committee recommended that the Stedelijk Museum retain the work. However, many criticized the decision, decrying, in particular, the “balance of interests” test, which essentially asserted that the museum had more to gain by keeping the important painting than the heirs — who the ruling said had “no special bond” with the work — had to gain from its return.
The claimants filed an appeal, but the contested recommendation was upheld in civil court in December 2020. The decision seemed particularly odd in light of an independent review of the Restitutions Committee released earlier that month. The review had recommended numerous changes to the system, including more empathy for claimants and the removal of the “balance of interests” test, which it argued privileges museums. In a letter published two months later, in February 2021, the College of Mayor and Alderpersons agreed with the independent review and also advised that the ruling on the Kandinsky painting be reconsidered, again.
The letter released by the College of Mayor and Alderpersons last week indicated that the Kandinsky painting would be swiftly returned — a sentiment echoed on the Stedelijk Museum’s website — and also reiterated Amsterdam’s commitment to the larger project of restitution. “We have a history as a city and with it comes a great responsibility for dealing with the injustice and irreparable suffering inflicted on the Jewish population during World War II,” it read. “The city stands for a fair and clear restitution policy, returning as much looted art as possible to the rightful owners or the heirs of the owners.”
“We are very happy about this decision,” Simon van der Sluijs, a lawyer for the claimants, told DutchNews.nl. “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.”