Looted but from whom? Dutch art exhibit seeks rightful owners

European Jewish Press 5 December 2006
Stephanie van den Berg

AMSTERDAM (AFP)--- Looted, but from whom? This is the central theme of a joint exhibition by the Dutch state and the Jewish Historical Museum of art plundered by the Nazis during World War II, which opens here Thursday.

"The goal of the show is to get a response from the public.

"It would be great if before then end of the show we could place an extra card next to some of the objects that says: now claimed," said Rudi Ekkart of the Dutch state’s Origins Unknown Agency.

During World War II, tens of thousands of art works that belonged to Jews from the Netherlands ended up in Germany through looting, confiscation or because the owners were forced to sell. After 1945 some 4,700 works of art of Dutch provenance found there were returned to the Netherlands and put in the custody of the Dutch state.

Ekkart’s agency was set up in 1998 after an earlier report established that in the post-war years, the Dutch government’s restitution policies in regard to looted art had been "cold, heartless and often bureaucratic".

Since that time, the Origins Unknown Agency has undertaken "far-reaching detective work involving worldwide searches to find the rightful owner or their heirs", Ekkart said.

There have been more than 40 claims since then and new claims arrive almost monthly. A special restitution commission looked into 31 claims of which only one was turned down. So far some 500 art works have been returned to their rightful owners.

The exhibit in the Hollandsche Schouwburg -- an emotionally charged location because it was the Nazis round-up point for the deportation of Amsterdam’s Jews -- shows 50 art works whose rightful owners are still being tracked down by the Unknown Origins Agency.

None of the paintings on show are masterpieces. There are no Rembrandts or Vermeers here but most of it is considered "good" art: typically Dutch landscapes, seascapes, portraits and pastoral scenes.

"Typical stuff for on the living room walls", according to Ekkart.

All objects have a little note next to them that explains their origin.

Some are known to have come from sales for people in hiding, some from art dealers known to have put pressure on Jewish people to sell works at low prices. Others came directly from war criminals like the bronze bust of a woman by Swiss sculptor Dora Neher found in the The Hague headquarters of Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Reichkommissar for the German occupied Netherlands.

A favourite of Perry Schier, a researcher at the Origins Unknown Agency, is a landscape by French artist Pierre Patel II. The agency suspected the work originally came from Jewish collector Martin Heidemann, who arrived in the Netherlands from Poland in the 1940s.

"When we went to see the painting while it was being restored, we asked to see the frame. When we looked we saw a mark from a Polish frame maker from a town close to Heidemann’s. This finally linked him to this painting," he said.

Extensive research showed that Heidemann was killed in Bergen-Belsen in 1945 but his son survived the war. He moved to Argentina but neither the son nor his possible heirs have been traced.

"We are hoping that there will be people who say: ’I knew that family, there is a nephew who lives there’," Ekkart said.

The location of the Hollandsche Schouwburg, or Dutch theatre, was chosen specifically in the hope that it would attract the target audience, those in the Jewish community who remember the war years or relatives of those who perished.

In the courtyard of the theatre, which is now a remembrance site, the exhibition is staged in a glass room to mirror -- a deliberate metaphor for the transparency the government is trying to achieve in giving back the looted art.

Hetty Berg of the Jewish Historical Museum that manages the Hollandsche Schouwburg explained that the paintings are shown in a warehouse type set-up to stress the temporary guardianship of the state.

The Unknown Origins Agency estimates that of the 4,200 artworks remaining in the custody of the Dutch state, another 200 to 500 could lead to additional claims.

The exhibit "Looted, but from whom?" runs until February 25 at the Hollandsche Schouwburg. Every Tuesday somebody from the Unknown Origins Agency will be present to answer question or help with possible claims.

For more information or to search for artworks, the exhibit has organised its own website: in Dutch and English. There is also an international website of the agency at
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