A Dutch court on Wednesday rejected a restitution case brought by heirs of a Jewish family that originally owned a painting by Wassily Kandinsky that was bought by the city of Amsterdam at an auction in 1940.
Amsterdam District Court upheld a 2018 ruling by the Netherlands’ restitution committee that the artwork titled “Painting With Houses,” which is the collection of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, does not have to be returned to the family.
James Palmer, who represents the heirs, called the decision unacceptable. Lawyers for the heirs said they will appeal.
The painting was owned by Robert Lewenstein, who fled the Netherlands following the Nazi invasion in 1940. Months later, the painting was “sold” to the museum.
“Immediately after the invasion, the Germans started looting art. Pressure and coercion and the justified fear that lived among the Jews were used,” attorney Simon van der Sluijs said last month, according to The Guardian.
“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 2018 ruling said that the sale of the painting “was caused to an extent by the deteriorating financial circumstances” of the original owners before the Nazis invaded, a claim that the heirs’ lawyers dispute.
“The Lewenstein family’s financial situation was no reason to sell the painting,” said Axel Hagedorn, another of the heirs’ lawyers. “In September 1940 there was a positive balance of 110,000 guilders. Robert Lewenstein, with an income of more than 5,200 guilders a year, was one of the 5% of taxpayers with the highest incomes.”
Hagedorn added that the painting was sold for only 160 guilders, and there was no documentation that the sum was ever paid.
“If this court decision is left unchallenged then Dutch restitution policy will effectively be non-existent, and important looted art in The Netherlands will likely never be restituted,” he said.
“After many years of struggles, the Lewenstein family is very disappointed that the Amsterdam District Court did not recognize the Lewenstein family’s rights to the restitution of its property, which was misappropriated during the Holocaust,” defense lawyers said in a statement.
The claimants also said that four out of the seven members of the restitutions committee have a conflict of interest since they belong to business clubs of the Stedelijk Museum or work at an office that sponsors the museum.
The court rejected the arguments.
In a written response, the City of Amsterdam, which owns the Stedelijk, said the court had ruled that the 2018 restitution committee decision “is not unacceptable by standards or reasonableness and fairness and therefore should not be set aside.”
“We are well aware that this is disappointing for the claimants,” the municipality added. “This painting will forever be linked to a painful history. The relationship of our collection with the Second World War will always be important, we will continue to show information about this to the public, online and also in the gallery.”