Kandinsky View of Murnau with church
A Kandinsky masterpiece in the Van Abbemuseum deemed to have been ‘looted’ in the Nazi era is to be returned to the heirs of a German Jewish family.
In the first major restitution since the Dutch announced a new policy of goodwill and humanity, the Restitutions Committee in the Hague has ruled that the painting ‘View of Murnau with church’ will be returned to the heirs of Johanna Margarethe Stern-Lippmann.
For the family in the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States, it has been a long and at times frustrating seven-year fight, after their initial claim was dismissed.
The Restitutions Committee said that its new binding opinion was a result of ‘new facts’ from correspondence and lists of artwork that ‘were not known to the committee before’ when it ruled in January 2018.
The family said in a joint statement that a sense of justice had been restored. ‘We are thrilled that the Kandinsky has been returned to us,’ they said.
‘The painting used to have a prominent position hanging in our (great) grand-parents’ house and represents much of our family’s story. Its coming back to us now marks an important moment – it won’t bring back the nine immediate family members who were so tragically murdered – but it’s an acknowledgment of the injustice that we, and so many like us, have endured.’
One of the relatives, Hester Bergen, previously told Dutch News that she first became aware that the Kandinsky could have been lost by her family when the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven identified it as potentially looted art, with a suspect provenance in 2013.
She found a ‘Landschaft’ by Kandinsky in a 1924 family will – and the museum discovered these words matched a handwritten description on the back of the painting. Then, in the possessions of her 84-year-old aunt, Bergen found a photograph of the work on the walls of her great-grandmother’s house in Germany, dated up to 1935.
‘That was the signal for the museum to say, this can’t be nothing, in 2015,’ Bergen previously told Dutch News. ‘I had a very good contact with the museum and actually the museum was willing to give a farewell party and give it back to the family.’ However, it turned out they needed to make an official claim first.
The Kandinsky painting in situ around 1935
The 12 descendants of the former owner Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann assumed the painting disappeared under dubious circumstances, when their Jewish ancestor fled to the Netherlands and the painting vanished from the family collection. Sternn-Lippmann was then arrested, deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
An initial claim was rejected when the Dutch restitutions committee ruled it did not doubt evidence that the family had owned the painting, but said they had not proven how it ended up in the hands of The Hague art dealer Karl Alexander Legat.
This man – whose name appears on a list of red flag names for dealing in looted art – sold the piece to the Eindhoven museum in 1951, claiming the former owner was a mysterious ‘A. Kaufmann.’
Now, however, after the family dropped a legal case and submitted a formal ‘review request’, the committee has ruled that the heirs did not need to prove that the painting was lost involuntarily – the opposite would need to be proven, since the formal assumption should be that all art lost by Jewish people at that time was looted or stolen, or a forced sale under pressure of the Nazi regime.
‘Three indications emerged from the investigation that make the loss of possession during the war plausible,’ the committee said in a news release. ‘Margarethe Stern-Lippmann was Jewish and therefore, on the grounds of the assessment framework approved by the government, the loss of possession was involuntary, unless there is express evidence to the contrary. The latter is not the case and the fate of Margarethe and her art collection is clear.’
Another disputed Kandinsky, ‘Bild mit Häusern’, worth an estimated €20 million, that was in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum was returned to its rightful owners in March this year. Family heir Rob Lewenstein previously told Dutch News that an official Kohnstamm review of Dutch policy that used to consider the interests of museums was welcome. It resulted in a pledge from then culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven and new policy to better uphold justice.
The Van Abbemuseum said that Kandinsky’s ‘Blick auf Murnau mit kirche’ would be given back as soon as possible to the heirs of Stern-Lippmann. Anastasia van Gennip, business director of the Van Abbemuseum, said in a statement: ‘It is fitting that this lengthy process has now come to an end. We have participated in all investigations with an open mind and cooperated in them along with the family. Both the municipality and the museum have always taken the view that justice must be done in cases like these.’