Descendants of Jewish art collector accused Amsterdam museum of 'bias' over Kandinsky looted painting

Senay Boztas
Painting with Houses by Wassily Kandinsky remains in Amsterdam's modern art museum  - Universal Images Group Editorial

Members of a Dutch body advising on Nazi looted art claims have been accused of bias in a case involving a €20 million Kandinsky painting in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum.

Heirs of the Lewenstein family are challenging a ruling saying that Amsterdam's modern art museum run by the city council is not obliged to return the colourful 1909 Nazi-looted masterpiece, ‘Painting with Houses’.

The family claim four of the seven members of the Netherlands’ restitutions committee that made the ruling are in fact also have connections with the Stedelijk Museum in a "flagrant violation" of legal principles.

The submission is part of a court case pitting Americans Robert Lewenstein and Francesca Davis and Amsterdammer Elsa Guidotti against Amsterdam city council and its prestigious Stedelijk Museum and foundation.

The Lewenstein family painting was sold for a song in Amsterdam on October 9, 1940, almost five months after the Dutch state surrendered to Nazi Germany. This was a time when the Dutch restitution committee itself recommends “all sales of works of art by Jewish private persons…be treated as forced sales, unless there is express evidence to the contrary”.

However, in 2018 – after five years of investigation – the committee ruled this sale was "caused to an extent by the deteriorating financial circumstance" of the family.

The ruling was blasted at the time by Stuart Eizenstat, an American diplomat who drew up the Washington Principles on Nazi looted art.

Prof Axel Hagedorn, a partner at the family's law firm told The Sunday Telegraph: “It is difficult to understand why the Stedelijk Museum retains looted art and chooses to continue to retain it. The Stedelijk Museum is wrongly hiding behind the opinion of the Restitutions Committee, to which there are major objections.”

James Palmer, founder of the Mondex Corporation, also representing the family, claims the body ignored evidence of the family company’s financial success in 1939 and 1940 – looking at losses made in prior years instead. “Of the five restitution bodies – the Netherlands, Germany, England, France and Austria – the Netherlands has the worst restitution rate,” he claimed to The Telegraph. “The family is outraged at its actions and how this whole decision was contrived.”

A letter written by claimant Robert Lewenstein junior – seen by The Telegraph – added: “For me the feelings aren’t just about stealing, and retribution, but also my view of the world and feelings of the heart. Our family who lived in Amsterdam Netherlands for many years…was deeply affected by the Nazi take over in 1940. Our business was ravaged and robbed, our personal art works were stolen, and auctioned and there was nothing that could be done to stop what was happening, until the final defeat of Hitler and the Nazis.”

A restitutions committee spokesman said it has not seen two academic reports filed in the new evidence yet.

“The Restitutions Committee has established that none of the members has or has had any ties to the museum that could give rise to doubts about their independence,” it said in a statement.  “Insofar as there is any kind of relationship (all members are visitors to the museum), it has nothing to do with a conflict of interest or the appearance thereof.”

A spokeswoman for Amsterdam city added that it – and its Stedelijk Museum – awaited the court’s decision.

In December, the Dutch culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven commissioned a review of the legal and moral aspects of the restitution committee’s ‘current policy’ on looted art, seeking proposals for improvements.