Dutch court refuses to return $22m Kandinsky painting to Jewish heirs

Judges uphold Restitutions Committee ruling that disputed artwork stay in Stedelijk Museum and not be returned to family of original owners

'Painting with Houses' ('Bild mit Häusern'), a 1909 painting by Wassily Kandinsky. (Wikimedia Commons/PD-old-75)
'Painting with Houses' ('Bild mit Häusern'), a 1909 painting by Wassily Kandinsky. (Wikimedia Commons/PD-old-75)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — 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’ Restitutions Committee that the artwork titled “Painting With Houses,” which is in 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.

“If this court decision is left unchallenged then Dutch restitution policy will effectively be nonexistent, 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.

Tourists stand near a disputed Wassily Kandinsky painting at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, July 10, 2019. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

The 2018 ruling said the painting was not stolen or confiscated before it was auctioned, but also stated that the sale “cannot on the one hand be considered in isolation from the Nazi regime, but on the other hand has to have been caused to an extent by the deteriorating financial circumstances” of the original owners before Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands during World War II.

Lawyers for the heirs argued that the restitution committee included members “who apparently have a strong bias in favor of the Stedelijk Museum” and ignored other legal issues linked to the restitution of art sold by Jewish families before and during the war.

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.”

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