Vasili Kandinski‘s painting Bild mit Häusern is allowed to linger in the Stedelijk Museum. The municipality of Amsterdam, which owns the work of art, does not have to return it to the heirs of Robert Lewenstein. They claim that Lewenstein sold the painting in 1940 under pressure from the Nazis. The court concludes that a previous decision of the Restitutions Committee does not show serious defects.
In 2018, the Restitutions Committee decided that the museum is allowed to keep the painting. The court did not reconsider the question of whether the Kandinski could be classified as a predator, but merely checked whether the committee has reached its conclusion in a proper manner. The heirs themselves were agreed with the municipality in advance to accept the opinion of the commission, which is binding, the court motivates the decision.
At the meeting, the heirs also argued that the committee was biased and that there was a conflict of interest. Four out of seven members of the committee are somehow affiliated with the Stedelijk Museum, for example because they are members of the business club or work with a sponsor of the museum. If there had really been a conflict of interest, the heirs should have smuggled earlier and not wait for a decision from the committee, the judge says.
The heirs of Lewenstein went to the municipality of Amsterdam in 2012 to ask for the painting back. Together they agreed that the Restitutions Committee should look into the matter. He did four years of research.
According to the heirs, the purchase in 1940 for 160 guilders was made under duress. They pointed out to the court that Robert Lewenstein’s financial situation was so good that it was not necessary to sell the painting. “The Nazis marched past their office on Dam Square. To label the auction of works of art by the Lewenstein family as voluntary is to be classified as bizarre,” said lawyer Simon van der Sluijs of the heirs.
No emotional bond
The Restitutions Committee disagreed with that. According to them, the municipality acted “in good faith”. And the researchers concluded that Lewenstein had been in trouble even before the Germans invasion. The sale must be “caused by the deteriorating financial circumstances”, the committee said.
Furthermore, the committee considered that the Stedelijk Museum has more interest in keeping the work. The committee stated that the painting “has an important art historical value and constitutes an essential link in the limited overview of Kandinski‘s work within the museum’s collection”. Of the heirs has not been shown to have “emotional or other intense bond” with the work, found the commission.
The judge believes that the committee has rightly considered these interests. However, in the light of a recent evaluation of the work of the Restitutions Committee, this statement is striking.
Last week a report was presented to Minister Van Engelshoven of Education, Culture and Science, to which the committee is covered. That evaluation report states that it is “fundamentally wrong” to take into account the interests of museums in the consideration of returning alleged predatory art or not.
The evaluation committee was headed by Jacob Kohnstamm. He called the policy on the basis of which the Restitutions Committee takes decisions ‘extremely opaque. ‘ “It consists of fifteen notes, letters from ministers and state secretaries. Totally unclear for someone who wants to know if a claim has a chance.” According to Kohnstamm, it is up to the Minister whether the recommendations of the Evaluation Committee should also be applied to cases already completed.