A Jewish family trying to reclaim a Kandinsky masterpiece lost under the Nazis has complained to the Dutch culture minister that the committee in charge is not showing respect to families “traumatised” by the Holocaust.
The Dutch restitutions committee, which makes decisions over Nazi looted art, is already facing a government review launched this month over the “legal and moral aspects” of its policy.
In another case over a separate Kandinsky painting, a different family is also taking the Stedelijk museum in Amsterdam to court.
In the latest criticism, descendants of the Stern-Lippmann family made their complaint after five years of trying to reclaim ‘View of Murnau with church’, currently one of the highlights of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven.
The picture was photographed on Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann’s wall in Germany before the Second World War, but disappeared under suspicious circumstances after she fled to the Netherlands. Ms Stern-Lippmann was herself deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
"We are treated like we are criminals," said Hester Bergen, great-granddaughter of Stern-Lippmann, who has been leading the attempt to reclaim the painting. "The restitutions committee is waiting for [advice from] an expertise centre, the expertise centre makes mistake after mistake, and everybody is hiding behind everybody else. In the meantime my old aunt, who is 84 and has MS, is the only one still alive who survived the war in hiding."
Ms. Bergen, who discovered a pre-war photograph of the painting in her great-grandmother's house amongst her aunt's possessions, also believes some members of the restitutions committee are "not empathetic towards Jewish people" and that the lengthy Dutch process "puts the burden of proof on claimants" – apparently contradicting national and international guidelines such as the Washington principles on Nazi-looted art.
In a letter to Dutch culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, the family complained about factual inaccuracies in expert reports, the length of time taken for judgments, potential "bias", and whether due "care and respect" was shown for "people traumatised by losing family members in the Holocaust".
This Kandinsky painting was identified by Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum itself as potentially looted art, when Dutch museums were asked to identify anything with a suspect provenance.
The family wrote to the museum – which Bergen says was so convinced it was planning a "farewell party" – and submitted a formal claim in 2015. However, this was rejected by the Dutch restitutions committee in 2018: it did not doubt evidence they had owned the painting, but said it had not proven whether it came to the Netherlands, or how it ended up with The Hague art dealer Karl Alexander Legat – who appears on a list of red flag names for dealing in looted art, and who sold the piece to the museum in 1951.
Now the Stern-Lippmann descendants have submitted new evidence to the restitutions committee, as well as a complaint to the committee and culture minister, but have been informed a meeting this week was cancelled.
This family is the latest to criticise current Dutch policy on returning looting art, which also weighs up a work's value to the current "owner" or museum.
Earlier this month, the Dutch government this month launched a review of the "legal and moral aspects of Dutch restitution policy" on Nazi looted art, due to report in October.
"The minister has asked the committee to compare this with the situation in other countries, and especially to look at the relationship between Dutch policy and the international guidelines on the restitution of Nazi-looted art," according to a statement. "The committee will also discuss awareness of the policy and its accessibility, bearing in mind the suffering of victims and the dialogue with heirs."
A spokesman for the culture ministry told the Telegraph: "The ministry regrets if there are claimants who are not happy with the restitution procedure. The matters before the restitutions committee are complex and are treated respectfully and carefully by those involved."
A spokesman for the restitutions committee told The Telegraph that it "cannot comment on cases in progress".
A spokeswoman for Eindhoven city council said it is waiting for a response on the latest information submitted in February 2019.
"We understand that it is a very painful history for the family," she said. "The situation is very complex, which is why the municipality and the family jointly decided to approach the restitutions committee for a binding opinion…We understand that the family feels that the process is slow, but it is important that everything is carefully examined."
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