September 28, 2023

The mayor of Amsterdam announced on Thursday that she had started talks to hand over a painting by Russian abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky to the heirs of a Jewish couple who owned the work before the Nazis came to power in the Netherlands.

The work “Painting with Houses” was acquired in 1940 during an auction by David Röell, director of the Stedelijk Museum, which is responsible for the current art collection of the city of Amsterdam with around 95,000 works.

Although it is unclear who decided to sell the painting, the auction took place just a few months after the Nazis invaded and the Stedelijk has admitted that it “may have been an involuntary sale”.

A few years ago heirs demanded the return of the work on the grounds that the sale was motivated by Nazi persecution. But in 2018 the Dutch Restitution Commission, a national body dealing with allegations of Nazi looting, said the painting could remain in the museum. A court later upheld this decision. More recently, however, a committee set up by the Dutch minister of culture has advocated a new approach to the handling of restitution claims.

Announcing the discussions in a letter on Thursday, Mayor Femke Halsema and Councilor for Arts and Culture Touria Meliani cited the importance of rectifying injustice, according to a New York Times translation.

A return of the painting would be made dependent on the approval of the Amsterdam city council, said two people involved in the discussions about the Kandinsky. James Palmer of Mondex Corporation, which supports the heirs, said he understood that after the mayor and heirs reached an agreement, the terms would be sent to the council for review.

The painting’s history has attracted a great deal of attention as it is viewed by some as emblematic of the shifts within the Netherlands related to how the country is handling requests for the return of works believed to have been made by Nazis looted or forcibly sold.

For many years, the country pioneered efforts to return stolen works to the heirs of their rightful owners. For the past decade, critics have questioned a “balancing of interests” criterion used by the Commission to weigh the value of the museum’s work against the claims of the heirs.

After examining the Kandinsky case, the Restitution Commission wrote that the sale of the painting was not “to be viewed in isolation from the Nazi regime”, but added that it was also “partly due” to its owners, Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein experienced “deteriorating financial conditions” even before the German invasion.

The commission also wrote that one plaintiff, an heir of Ms Klein, “has no particular attachment” to the painting, but that the work has “an important place” in the Stedelijk collection.

The Committee of the Minister of Culture recommended abandoning the “balance” test in 2020 and called for a more empathic approach. The Restitution Committee had to react less formalistically to demands. Shortly thereafter, Ms. Halsema and several other officials, collectively known as the College of Mayors and Aldermen, requested that the painting be handed over to the heirs.

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