Dutch to rectify Nazi art grab

International Herald Tribune 6 February 2006
Alan Riding

PARIS -- In one of the largest restitutions to date of art seized by the Nazis, the Dutch government announced Monday that it would return over 200 Old Master paintings to the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker, a wealthy Dutch Jewish dealer and collector who fled Amsterdam ahead of advancing German troops on May 14, 1940.

The works include paintings by Jan Steen, Filippo Lippi, Anthony Van Dyck, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jan Mostaert and Jan van Goyen, which have been hanging in 17 Dutch museums and other government buildings since the 1950s. No estimate of their market value was immediately available.

The restitution, the climax to an eight-year campaign led by Marei von Saher, the widow of Goudstikker's son, followed a recommendation by a government-appointed Restitutions Committee. Earlier, both the government and a Dutch court had refused to reopen the case.

"Overwhelmed, thrilled, elated," von Saher said, describing her feelings in a telephone interview from The Hague. "I can't believe that after this long battle we have finally succeeded." She attributed the success to her team of lawyers and "times changing because people are looking at Holocaust victims differently."

Von Saher, 61, a longtime resident of Connecticut, said she would now study what to do with the recovered art. "It's not the size or the value" that matters, she said, but Goudstikker's legacy. Her daughter, Charlene, added: "It's about a historical injustice put right."

Announcing the decision, Medy van der Laan, the Dutch deputy culture minister, said the government found that returning the works was the morally correct action. "This is a bloodletting for some of our museums," she said, adding that the Dutch museums would not receive compensation for the losses.

Since attention turned in the mid-1990s to art looted by the Nazis from Jewish families, the only restitution larger than this one involved about 250 works returned to the Viennese branch of the Rothschild family by the Austrian government, in 1999.

Goudstikker, 42, who died in an accident on the boat taking him to safety, was one of Europe's most prominent art dealers and collectors. In an inventory he carried with him when he fled, he described paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, Titian and Tintoretto among the 1,113 works he listed. He also left uncounted other works in his various properties.

The collection was bought in July 1940 by the Nazi leader Hermann Göring and his dealer, a German businessman, Alois Miedl. Göring, who built up a large art collection during the war, is thought to have taken 779 paintings. Miedl also bought the Goudstikker gallery and used its prestige to sell thousands of other works, many once belonging to Jews, during World War II.

Most of Goudstikker's finest paintings were never recovered, with many believed to have entered museum and private collections around the world. Of those returned to the Netherlands after the war, the government sold from 65 to 70 in the 1950s. Of the 267 incorporated into the Dutch National Collection, 202 are now being returned.

The restitution is expected to leave holes in the collections of several leading museums, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, the Frans Hals Museum near Haarlem, the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam and, the most affected, the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.

Among paintings singled out by experts are Steen's 1671 "Sacrifice of Iphigenia," van Ruysdael's 1649 "Ferry on a River," Isaac van Ostade's "Winter Scene With an Inn by a Frozen Stream" and van Goyen's 1651 "View of Dordrecht." Ronald de Leeuw, the director of the Rijksmuseum, which will surrender 15 paintings, has also identified two "iconic" works: Daniel Vosmaer's 1663 "View of Delft" and Mostaert's 1540 "Episode from the Conquest of America."

Lawrence Kaye of the New York law firm Herrick, Feinstein, who represents von Saher, said that an estimated 1,000 works from the Goudstikker collection were still missing. He said that a team of experts was looking for those works and that, so far, 32 had been recovered from museums in Europe and Israel as well as from some private collections. "We have identified a number of works and we're going to proceed with those claims," he added.

The restitution of Goudstikker's artworks in the Netherlands was enormously complicated by the fact that Göring and Miedl paid for the paintings they took and that the dealer's widow, Desirée, signed an agreement with the Dutch government in 1952 renouncing her claim to works acquired by Miedl.

Postwar Dutch governments argued that the 1940 sales to Göring and Miedl were voluntary because they were approved by two of Goudstikker's employees and Goudstikker's mother, Emily. However, from her refuge in the United States, Desirée objected to the sale. Further, there is evidence that Emily Goudstikker gave her approval in exchange for a promise of protection from anti-Jewish reprisals.

In the late 1940s, Desirée bought back 165 paintings found in the Goudstikker gallery at the end of the war as well as real estate, including Nijenrode Castle, once owned by her husband. When she signed the agreement on the so-called Miedl paintings in 1952, however, she attached a statement expressing her "grave disappointment" with the outcome and noting that she was making "extremely unfair" sacrifices.

After that, it seems, Desirée turned her back on the past. In 1950, she married A.E.D. von Saher, and Edward, her son with Goudstikker, took von Saher's name. Desirée died in February 1996 and Edward five months later. Edward's widow, Marei von Saher, said that she knew nothing about the Goudstikker legacy until a Dutch journalist, Pieter den Hollander, approached her with information about the collection in 1997.

In January 1998, Marei von Saher formally requested the return of the paintings, but two months later she was rebuffed by the Dutch government, which said that Desirée had renounced the Miedl paintings and had "deliberately and consciously refrained" from claiming the Göring paintings.

She then appealed that decision, but in December 1999 a Dutch court said that it was "incompetent" to overrule the government and that the application to reopen the entire case was "inadmissable" because it was made after a statute of limitations went into force in 1951.

Meanwhile, aware of controversy over its handling of the Goudstikker case, the government formed a commission to investigate the provenance of all the art in its museums. This in turn led to the creation of a seven-member Restitutions Committee, with the mandate of studying specific claims. Until now, it had studied 19 claims and recommended restitution in 14 cases.

In April 2004, Marei von Saher applied to the committee for restitution of 267 art works. In its recommendation, made public Monday, the committee concluded that the sales of art and property to Göring and Miedl were "involuntary." Still more critically, while it recognized that Desirée Goudstikker had waived her rights to the Miedl paintings, it decided that she did not waive her rights to those delivered to Göring.

The committee further recommended that Goudstikker's heirs should not be required to pay for the returned works. It noted that at least 63 paintings from the stock were sold by the Dutch government, which kept the proceeds; that the Dutch government had use of the painting for almost 60 years without payment; and that four paintings were missing.

In conclusion, the committee recommended the return of 202 of the 267 sought by von Saher. It noted that 40 could not be related to Goudstikker; 21 were Miedl paintings covered by the 1952 accord; and four paintings were either lost or missing.
© website copyright Central Registry 2023