London returns stolen artwork

Museums Association 8 November 2017
By Simon Stephens

Nazis took old master painting from Dutch owner in 1945

An old master painting that was on display at London’s Mansion House has been returned to its rightful owners after it was shown that the artwork was stolen by the Nazis during the second world war.

The 17th-century Dutch painting, The Oyster Meal by Jacob Ochtervelt, was part of a collection of 84 artworks given to the City of London Corporation by property developer and entrepreneur Harold Samuel in 1987. The painting has been restituted to Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, the 96-year-old daughter of its Dutch owner, the late JH Smidt van Gelder.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which acted on behalf of the family, showed that The Oyster Meal was one of 14 paintings stored by Smidt van Gelder that were were looted in January 1945, following the Battle of Arnhem, when the town was plundered by the Germans.

The Oyster Meal and five other paintings were never found, despite extensive searches after the war. The restitution claim traced the previously unknown history of The Oyster Meal between its disappearance in 1945 and its reappearance on the art market in Switzerland 20 years later.

The oil on canvas was acquired by Samuel in 1971. His bequest  in 1987 came with the condition that the 84 artworks be retained permanently at Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London. However, on hearing about the claim, the daughters of the late Samuel waived the condition and agreed that The Oyster Meal should be returned to the family.

“We much appreciate the exemplary speed and courtesy with which the City of London Corporation has addressed this claim and its commitment to the return of the painting to the family,” said Anne Webber, the co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. “We particularly thank the daughters of Lord Samuel for their agreement to the restitution of the painting.

“The painting was plundered in terrifying circumstances after the Battle of Arnhem, when many British lives were lost and so many Dutch families were terrorised. It is very moving that a painting of such meaning to her and her family is at last being returned to 96-year-old Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck, who lived through those times and remembers the painting so well.”
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