Art theft: Bring on the Monuments Men … again

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If George Clooney’s Monuments Men (portraying WWII Allied soldiers retrieving looted Nazi art) had been more successful at the end of the film, the fate of Bild mit Hausern (Painting with Houses) could have been very different.

The Kandinsky painting currently hangs in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum and has again become the subject of legal action.

Wassily Kandinsky, Bild mit Häusern (Painting with houses) (1909)

Descendants of Jewish art collector Robert Lewenstein have filed a lawsuit against the museum, seeking restitution for the painting they claim was sold through price-fixing in the then Nazi-controlled Netherlands in 1940.

They also assert that the Dutch Restitutions Committee (RC) – an independent body tasked to investigate the case in 2018 – did not maintain objectivity in its decision. Speaking to Private Art Investor, the RC denied claims stating that the decision was taken with all information available at the time. 

The case is, no doubt, fraught with art restitution legalities. But it highlights the complexity of such cases extremely well. Museums and art owners around the world will be watching the outcome with keen interest. If the Stedelijk Museum loses the case, what principles might this establish? 

Exclusive: Lewenstein family files lawsuit for looted Nazi-era Kandinsky painting

Certainly such cases test The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. Aimed “to complete by the end of this century the unfinished business of the middle of the century”, it is understood that only five countries – of which The Netherlands is one – have set up dedicated panels to rule on disputed works. 

The reality of art restitution politics, as many will tell you, is an uneven playing field that lacks a focussed view through the lens of humanity. What a shame the Monuments Men unit was disbanded after the war – even if the Monuments Men Foundation is still active.

PS: The Monuments Men retrieved nearly 5m art and cultural objects looted by the Nazis from European owners, mainly Jewish collectors and institutions. Here is the foundation’s most wanted list, should you see a Cézanne whose provenance is ‘unknown’.