Heirs Make Huge Claim Over Dutch Works of Art

New York Times 26 September 2007

By Marlise Simons

Municipal Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden
"Horsefair at Valkenburg", a 1633 painting by Salomon van Ruysdael, currently on display at the Stedelijk Museum in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Just as the Dutch government was moving to discourage new claims for restitution of art looted during World War II, the heirs of a Dutch Jewish art dealer have filed one of the largest claims to date for paintings now held in Dutch museums.

Four heirs of the dealer, Nathan Katz, who died in 1949, say that he was the rightful owner of more than 200 artworks recovered in Germany at the end of the war and handed over to the Dutch government. The claimants are Mr. Katz’s four children: Sybilla Goldstein-Katz, who lives in Florida; her brother, David; and her sisters Margaret and Eva, who all live in Europe.

The details of the restitution claim have not been made public, but Dutch museum directors say the works in question include paintings by 17th-century Dutch masters, among them Jan Steen, Gerard Dou and Nicolaas Maes. Some works are by Flemish and Italian artists. Many are centerpieces of major museums in the Netherlands, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem.

The Dutch Ministry of Culture said the claim was filed in March for 227 items — 225 paintings and 2 tapestries — but Bob van het Klooster, a spokesman, declined to provide further details. The matter became publicly known only on Friday when museum directors were notified of the claim.

The spokesman said the claim will now be studied by the Restitution Commission, a group of experts set up in 2001 to advise the government on the return of cultural property that was lost, sold or stolen after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands.

The application filed by the Katz heirs is larger than the claim for 202 paintings made by the heirs of Jacques Goudstikker and finally resolved in favor of the heirs in 2006. However, it also appears to be less clear cut.

Nathan and Benjamin Katz, brothers, had one gallery in Dieren, their hometown in the east of the Netherlands, and another in The Hague. They reportedly continued doing business after the German occupation of the Netherlands in May 1940. Researchers for the Restitution Commission said that the brothers sold many works to Alois Miedl, who was buying art for Hermann Goering and other Nazi leaders.

Tina M. Talarchyk, the Florida lawyer who is representing the Katz heirs in their claim, said that when Nathan and Benjamin Katz wanted to flee the Netherlands, they traded several sets of paintings for visas, and in this way also enabled 65 relatives to leave the country to eventual safety. One poignant detail, she said, was that the dealers’ mother was released from Westerbork, a Dutch concentration camp, in exchange for a Rembrandt painting through the intervention of Miedl.

Nathan Katz left in February 1942, after he obtained German permission to take his family to Switzerland via Frankfurt. They had to leave behind their home and many of their possessions.

Although the Dutch government in exile had decreed that citizens could not trade with the enemy, many Dutch art dealers, both Jews and non-Jews, sold works to eager German collectors, who circulated wish lists in the first few years of the war. Dutch traditional painting was sought after, because the Nazis did not consider it “degenerate” art.

After the war the Dutch government returned 28 paintings that the Katz brothers had claimed. Among them was Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man,” believed to have been used to buy their mother’s freedom.

Evelien Campfens, a member of the Restitution Commission in The Hague, said the claim of the Katz heirs would “be a complex case, with many different aspects to it: it will take time.” She said that the Katz brothers were important dealers involved in many transactions, and that many important paintings had passed through their hands.

The commission was notified of the claim in June, she said, and still has a large backlog of other applications.

Ms. Talarchyk, the lawyer, said the family discovered the Dutch restitution program only several years ago, while on a visit to the Netherlands. They filed for the return of one painting in 2003 as a test case and received a reply only in 2006. Their full claim was made in March to meet a government deadline of April 4.

They were assisted in their search for former Katz properties by Rudi Ekkart, a well-known Dutch art historian who is the director of the Origins Unknown Agency. His group has helped the government set standards for its restitution policy and has compiled inventories of the thousands of cultural objects lost by their owners.

In an interview Mr. Ekkart called the Katz claim “haphazard,” saying that it had been made in a “slapdash and hasty manner” and included art owned by the dealers in the 1930s that was sold before the war and therefore could not be subject to any claim.

But Mr. Ekkart added that the largest number of paintings claimed were sold after the Nazi invasion. During the war, he said, no paintings owned by the Katzes had been confiscated by the Germans. The central question, he stressed, was to determine which works had been sold involuntarily. “This will be judged by the Restitution Commission,” he said.

Ms. Talarchyk said that she saw the issue as “very straightforward.”

“When you’re dealing with German intermediaries and Jewish sellers in the war, there is no other conclusion than that this art was subject to forced sales,” she said. “There is a wrong that needs to be righted.”
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