Amsterdam's mayor announces talks with Jewish heirs on Kandinsky claim
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Amsterdam's mayor announces talks with Jewish heirs on Kandinsky claim
Wassily Kandinsky, Bild mit Häusern, 1909. Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam c/o Pictoright, Amsterdam 2004.

by Colin Moynihan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The mayor of Amsterdam announced Thursday that she had begun discussions to turn over a painting by Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky to the heirs of a Jewish couple who had owned the work before the Nazi takeover of the Netherlands.

The work, “Painting With Houses,” was acquired during an auction in 1940 by David Röell, director of the Stedelijk Museum, which is responsible for the city of Amsterdam’s present-day art collection of about 95,000 works.

Though it is unclear who decided to sell the painting, the auction took place just months after the Nazi invasion, and the Stedelijk has acknowledged it is “possible that this had been an involuntary sale.”

Heirs asked for the return of the work several years ago, arguing that the sale was motivated by Nazi persecution. But in 2018, the Dutch Restitutions Commission, a national panel that handles claims of Nazi looting, said the painting could remain with the museum. A court later upheld that decision. More recently, however, a committee convened by the Dutch minister of culture advocated a new approach in handling restitution requests.

In announcing the discussions Thursday in a letter, the mayor, Femke Halsema, and the city’s alderman for art and culture, Touria Meliani, cited the importance of righting wrongs, according to a translation provided to The New York Times.

A return of the painting would be contingent upon the approval of Amsterdam’s City Council, said two people involved in the discussions over the Kandinsky. James Palmer of Mondex Corp., which is assisting the heirs, said his understanding was that after the mayor and heirs reach an agreement, its terms would be sent to the council for review.

The story of the painting has drawn wide attention because it is seen by some as emblematic of shifts within the Netherlands related to how the country has handled requests for the return of works believed to have been plundered by Nazis or sold under duress.

For many years, the country was seen as being at the forefront of efforts to return stolen works to the heirs of their rightful owners. Over the last decade or so, critics have taken issue with a “balance of interests” criteria that the commission used in an effort to weigh the value of the work to the museum against claims by heirs.

After considering the case of the Kandinsky, the restitutions commission wrote that the sale of the painting cannot “be considered in isolation from the Nazi regime,” but added that it had also been “caused to an extent” by the fact that its owners, Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein, had experienced “deteriorating financial circumstances” that predated the German invasion.

The commission also wrote that while one claimant, an heir to Klein, “has no special bond with” the painting, that the work “has a significant place” in the Stedelijk’s collection.

The culture minister’s committee recommended in 2020 that the “balance” test be abandoned and called for a more empathetic approach, saying that the restitutions committee needed to become less formalistic in its responses to claims. Shortly afterward, Halsema and several other officials, known collectively as the College of Mayor and Alderpersons, called for the painting to be turned over to the heirs.

“The suffering inflicted on Jewish citizens in particular during the Second World War is unprecedented and irreversible,” they wrote in February, adding that society had “a moral obligation” to redress that.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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