“Little Boy on His Deathbed,” by Bartholomeus van der Helst. Credit Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Museum Prinsenhof Delft, Fries Scheepvaartmuseum Sneek and NARA
Deventer, The Netherlands — The small boy, all in white, lies still, his tiny hands cupped together, his eyes serenely shut. A wooden torch lies across the bedsheets, its flame conspicuously snuffed out.
This striking painting, “Little Boy on His Deathbed,” by the 17th-century Dutch master Bartholomeus van der Helst, was among more than 1,200 artworks seized by the Nazis from an Amsterdam gallery during World War II. Recovered by the Allies, the 1645 picture should have been returned to the family of Jacques Goudstikker, a well-known Dutch art dealer. Instead, it hung in a Dutch museum for a half century until the family won a restitution battle.
The journey of van der Helst’s work is emblematic of a period in Dutch history when a cold cynicism toward Holocaust survivors meant that thousands of masterly works were rescued from the Nazis only to end up as Dutch national property.
“It was a lack of compassion,” said Rudi Ekkart, an art historian the government hired in 1997 to track looted art and help find the rightful owners.
The lapses of that period, and earnest Dutch efforts to address them, are the subjects of the exhibition “Looted Art — Before, During and After WWII,” which opened on May 12 at the medieval Bergkerk cathedral here.
Six years in the making, the show features 75 works, including the portrait of the boy, and explores the uneven history of art looted by the Nazis from the Netherlands. Once ridiculed for its obtuse efforts at recovery, the Netherlands in the late 1990s embraced progressive and pioneering efforts that have led it to be considered a model for enlightened restitution.
But the country’s recent restitution efforts are coming under scrutiny as some international critics say Dutch policies for returning looted art have become stricter once again. Of particular concern is a policy that in recent years requires the government panel that judges restitution cases to balance the interests of national museums against the claims by Jewish survivors or their heirs.
The policy asks the panel to weigh “the significance of the work to public art collections” against the emotional attachment of the claimant. In 2013, for example, a claim for the Bernardo Strozzi painting “Christ and the Samaritan Woman,” filed by the heirs of a German-Jewish refugee, was rejected because it was important to the Dutch museum that housed it.
“The balance-of-interests test means that even if a claimant submits a claim to the restitution committee for a work of art, and even if the panel finds that the claim is good, is right, the claimants don’t automatically get their painting back, nor do they get any remedy,” said Anne Webber, the chairwoman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which is based in London.
Gideon Taylor, the chairman of operations for the World Jewish Restitution Organization, said, “This is having a chilling effect on claimants.”
While there were efforts in Germany and other European countries after the war to compensate victims of Nazi looting, new scholarship and media coverage in the 1990s on the full extent of it persuaded some countries, like France and Austria, to revisit their own policies and to improve the restitution process.
The art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, whose works were looted.
“When you consider the Netherlands in relation to the other European countries, it took an early lead, and they’re still doing a much better job than some other countries,” said Christopher A. Marinello, the chief executive of Art Recovery International, an Italian company that specializes in stolen and looted art. “But the efforts seem to have tailed off, as of late.”
The new exhibition focuses on a broader arc of Dutch restitution, stretching back to the war. It was conceived by Eva Kleeman, a curator based here, who, with her husband, Daaf Ledeboer, an urban development consultant, established a foundation to mount exhibitions in the historic Bergkerk. They were looking through government storage areas to find art worth displaying and said they kept coming across impressive paintings with so-called NK numbers on them. They were all from the NK Collection, a trove of some 3,800 looted works that have yet to be returned for a variety of reasons.
“We asked if we could borrow a work of art, and they said, well, it could be complicated, there could be a claim on it,” Ms. Kleeman said. “We were intrigued by that.”https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/12/arts/design/are-the-dutch-lagging-in-efforts-to-return-art-looted-by-the-nazis.html?_r=0