Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck sees the portrait for the first time since it was stolen. Courtesy of the family of Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck
During World War II, Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder tried to keep his collection of Dutch Old Master paintings safe from the Germans. But in 1945, Nazis looted his artworks, including a 1683 piece by Caspar Netscher called Portrait of Steven Wolters.
Now, over 75 years later, the painting has been returned to his daughter, Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, who is 101. She plans to sell the looted piece at auction next month through Sotheby’s in London, which expects it to fetch $36,000 to $61,000.
Smidt van Gelder lived in Arnhem, a city on the eastern side of the Netherlands, where he served as the director of the children’s hospital, according to a statement from Sotheby’s. When he wasn’t working, he was visiting art galleries and chatting with dealers, buying up whatever works he could afford. Over time, the doctor amassed a collection of more than 25 works by Dutch Old Masters like Jacob de Wit, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jan van Huysum and Jacob Ochtervelt.
One of those paintings, Portrait of Steven Wolters, hung in the dining room of the family’s home, right behind the young Bischoff van Heemskerck’s chair.
Caspar Netscher's Portrait of Steven Wolters. Courtesy of Sotheby's
In 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, and the Nazis zeroed in on the doctor’s impressive collection. In an effort to keep his paintings safe, Smidt van Gelder brought 14 of his most beloved works to the Amsterdam Bank in Arnhem and stored them in a vault.
Four years later, Allied troops arrived north of Arnhem and tried to enter northern Germany, an attempt known as “Operation Market Garden.” After losing three-quarters of their men in less than two weeks, the Allied soldiers pulled back. German troops evacuated Arnhem and looted anything they could carry away.
They plundered the vaults at the Amsterdam Bank, taking with them all 14 of Smidt van Gelder’s precious paintings. The person who likely stole the artwork was Nazi leader Helmut Temmler, reports the Times’ Jack Malvern.
After the war, Dutch authorities tracked down and returned eight of those paintings to Smidt van Gelder but couldn’t locate the remaining six. Bischoff van Heemskerck spent years looking for these pieces, especially Portrait of Steven Wolters, which held special significance to her. Once, about 15 years ago, she even had a disappointing false sighting when she spotted a 17th-century copy of the painting at Slot Zeist in the Netherlands.
“We all missed this painting very much because it was so much part of our daily life,” she says in the statement. “It is a beautiful painting, beautifully painted, with its subtle combination of colors on the wonderful coat and the expression on the face of the sitter which shows him to be a generous man, an impressive man.”
Meanwhile, the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a nonprofit that helps reunite families and communities with looted property, was also on the hunt for the missing portrait. With a bit of sleuthing, the commission learned that the painting had first reappeared at a gallery in Düsseldorf in the 1950s and was then auctioned off in Amsterdam in 1969. A private collector in Germany bought the portrait in 1971.
The commission negotiated with the collector, eventually coming to an agreement and returning the portrait to Bischoff van Heemskerck in 2021. Per the Guardian’s Dalya Alberge, Bischoff van Heemskerck has decided to sell the painting so her family can benefit from the proceeds. While her father died in 1969, he would have been “so happy” to know that she got the portrait back, she says.
“I had five brothers and sisters,” she tells the Guardian. “There are 20 offspring and they are very sweet, so I never had the feeling that it was mine. It’s from the family.”
The portrait’s subject, Steven Wolters, was a wealthy Dutch merchant and art collector. Netscher painted Wolters’ portrait in 1683, adeptly capturing the merchant’s prized robe, which was likely made from an Iranian silk-like fabric.
Portrait of Steven Wolters is actually the second painting returned to the family in recent years: They were also reunited with Jacob Ochtervelt’s The Oyster Meal in 2017, which they sold at auction for $2.4 million.