A nine-year legal battle that has transfixed the international art world has come to an unexpected end with the decision by Amsterdam’s city council to unilaterally return a €20 million art work by Wassily Kandinsky to the family of its previous Jewish owners.
The council’s decision flies in the face of a ruling by the Netherlands’s restitutions commission in 2018 that the municipal Stedelijk Museum of modern art could retain the painting because it had been bought “in good faith” in October 1940, and was of “important art historical value”.
The case was seen as a litmus test for the moral authority of the commission – which was set up to process claims to art confiscated or looted during the Nazi occupation – and whose ruling in the Kandinsky case was upheld by an Amsterdam court just last year.
The claimants in the case – who have not been named publicly – said the pre-war owners of the painting, Robert Lewenstein and his wife Irma Klein, had been forced to sell it “under duress” because their sewing factory in Amsterdam was no longer viable under the occupation.
Their lawyers pointed out during the case that the 160 guilders paid by the Stedelijk Museum to purchase the work at auction had been only 30 per cent of the 500 guilders Mr Lewenstein’s father, Emmanuel Lewenstein, originally paid for it 1923.
They also noted that the worldwide Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany considered the painting stolen.
However, rather than ending the controversy, the court’s decision caused a public outcry and opened a new chapter in the controversial history of “bild mit hausern” or “painting with houses”, completed by the Russian artist in 1909 while studying in Munich.
A spokesperson for the claimants branded the judgment “a second despoilation of the painting”, adding, “the first was by the Nazis and the second was by the Dutch Restitutions Commission, now in conjunction with Amsterdam city court”.
Influential former home affairs minister Jacob Kohnstamm slated both decisions as “unjust in principle” because it was unacceptable to take the interests of museums into account when returning looted art.
He was supported by culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, who said public expectations had changed. Retaining artworks on the basis of cultural significance was no longer acceptable. What was required instead was “restorative justice”.
Two members of the restitutions commission resigned.
Facing the prospect of an appeal against last year’s court decision, the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, clearly decided which was the right side of history and wrote to the council last Friday saying the work would be returned forthwith.
The decision had been taken, she said, due to the length of time that had passed and “in the interests of righting wrongs”.