De Standaard 29 November 2022
By Geert Sels
To read the article as published in Dutch on the front page of De Standaard, see the PDF here
Belgium has maintained for years that there is no Nazi art in its museums. But that is not true. Nine paintings and 13 works on paper may be claimed back. Lawyers are busy preparing the claims. 'We will file them before the end of this year.'
Compared to most European countries, Belgium has a passive policy on Nazi art theft. Our country insists it has done its homework and that there are no irregularities.
Research by De Standaard shows that art of dubious provenance does hang in Belgian museums and it is an illusion to think that Belgium is immune to Nazi plunder.
The first problematic works of art ended up in Belgian museums as early as the years before the German occupation. Can there be Nazi loot art if there was no Nazi on Belgian soil yet? From a Belgian perspective it is difficult to understand, from that of the refugees it is. Many German or Austrian migrants were trying to escape the cascade of anti-Jewish measures that systematically pushed them further out of society. Once in Belgium, they had to try to survive.
Paul Rosenthal, for instance, had been wandering through Zurich, Amsterdam, Knokke and Brussels for five years when he monetised paintings by Roelant Savery and Willem Buytewech at the Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. The Viennese art restorer Moritz Lindemann sold a painting by Cornelis van Haarlem and Heinrich Tiefenbrunn one by Bartholomeus Breenberg. This enabled the museum to enrich its collection.
About the latter two paintings, the curator wrote that they could be bought 'on favourable terms'. 'They both come from fugitive Austrians.'
The Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels accepted a donation from the Seegall family. The latter saw her application for a visa to Belgium repeatedly refused until she handed over 10 works on paper in exchange. They include drawings by Spitzweg, Menzel and Corinth, among others. Just before, a family member had already donated two works by Toulouse-Lautrec and Liebermann.
Moritz Lindemann, who sought protection to stay in the country and avoid arrest as a Jew, donated paintings by Govert Flinck and Pieter Huys to the Brussels museum. He nevertheless ended up in Kazerne Dossin.
Lawyer Louis Rönsberg, who specialises in art law and Nazi looting, said in a telephone response from Munich that he is preparing claims on behalf of the Rosenthal and Lindemann families. 'The case for Rosenthal is ready and we will file this year. We will send a letter asking for the two paintings back. Then we will see what the reactions are. For the Lindemann family, we still need some documents to prove that my clients are the rightful owners. We are almost done with that.' Liquidated
The gallery of fugitive art dealer Samuel Hartveld was liquidated by the Nazis and sold at a bargain price to an Aryan Belgian. That sold 'The Portrait of Antonius Triest' by Gaspar de Crayer to the Bijloke Museum - the work is now owned by the Museum of Fine Arts of Ghent.
Still at the Ghent museum, 'The Portrait of Ludwig Adler' by Oskar Kokoschka is once again claimed by the Von Klemperer family. This previously happened in 2009, after which the city of Ghent put together an ad hoc committee. On its advice, the city rejected the claim in 2011. Now the relatives are resubmitting the case.
'A detailed commentary on the report and recommendation of the ad hoc committee has been agreed with the next of kin and is as good as settled,' says lawyer Sabine Rudolph on the phone from Dresden. 'We will deliver it to the city of Ghent before Christmas. In it we will ask them to reconsider their wrong decision and return the painting.'
At the Royal Institute for Art Heritage (KIK), a Norwegian family is requesting the return of 'Portrait of Mary Magdalene'. That was seized by Belgian police in 2004 when the family brought it in for a laboratory examination. In early 2020, this newspaper revealed that the Royal Library has a watercolour by Félicien Rops that was forcibly auctioned in Nice in 1942.
The relatives of the families involved have been traced and informed through genealogical research. The museums have also been informed. For them, this was new information. 'We were not aware that the Von Klemperer family would not agree with the conclusions of the commission in 2011,' says Manfred Sellink, director of the MSK in Ghent. 'Naturally, we are cooperating with possible further investigations and awaiting the new arguments and evidence. The same applies to the history of the work of Gaspar de Crayer, which is unknown to us.' The Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp did not yet wish to comment. The KMSKB in Brussels is 'aware that the full provenance of all works of art is not known'. 'Extensive new research could lead to new returns.'