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

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

Descendants of a WWII Jewish art collector have filed a lawsuit against Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, seeking restitution for a Wassily Kandinsky painting they claim was looted by Nazis and sold in bad faith in October 1940.

The painting titled Bild mit Häusern (Painting with Houses) (1909) was bought by the museum in an auction in Nazi-controlled Amsterdam during the Second World War at 160 Dutch guilders – approximately €1400 today.  

In October 2018, the Restitutions Committee (RC) – a Dutch government-established body dealing with Nazi-era looted art – issued a decision that the claimants were not entitled to the restitution of the painting.

Private Art Investor spoke to the Lewensteins’ attorney, Dr Axel Hagedorn, Van Diepen Van der Kroef, who said: “It is shocking that Stedelijk Museum – a museum with an international reputation – is wrongly hiding behind the opinion of the Restitutions Committee, to which there are major objections.

One of the factors leading to the decision was an Ekkart Committeefundamental principle”, stating that the loss of possession of Jewish property – such as art – from May 10, 1940 onwards, would be regarded as involuntary unless proven otherwise.

The question of Dutch ownership rights would usually come into focus for stolen art; however, the case has been filed under RC rules which have different parameters.

New year, new information

As of January 14th, the claimants have brought two new claims to the case: that the RC did not maintain objectivity in its 2018 decision and that the Lewenstein family was not under financial strain around the years the painting changed hands.   

Further, the statement released by the law firms representing the Lewenstein family – Mondex Corporation and Van Diepen Van der Kroef Advocaten – states that the Stedelijk Museum was colluding to sway the price at the time of auction.  

It says: “Price-fixing agreements were made with another bidder at the auction. The Stedelijk Museum’s own investigation of the acquisition disregarded important facts and created the appearance that a thorough study of its ownership had been conducted, whereas that was not actually the case.

The other bidder at the auction was Salomon B. Slijper – who was at one point the biggest collector of works by Piet Mondrian – according to Hagedorn, the new attorney for the claimants.   

According to the RC, a special research team – consisting of provenance researchers and art historians – was enlisted to collate evidence on its behalf in 2018.

But the price-fixing claim is based on missed information from a Dutch book published 2009, said Hagedorn.

James Palmer, founder of Mondex, told PAI: “Four of the seven members who sat on the original Committee when the decision was taken had very close relations with the museum. They were also appointed to their roles after the claim was submitted.”

The written statement claims it is: “a flagrant violation of due process, to the detriment of the Lewenstein heirs, and directly favours the municipally owned Stedelijk Museum.”

Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. courtesy of Stedelijk Museum.

This violation is further confirmed by an independent academic-legal report from Professor Henk Addink of Utrecht University.

Hagedorn argued that some scientific facts – which do not meet the standards of such an important case – were assumed and “as this is Dutch restitution politics, you would expect it to be much better”. 

The financial position of owners Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein was cited to deny resitution in 2018. However, a professor at the University of Groningen, on behalf of Mondex, was asked to analyse whether financial strain was a reason for the sale. 

In her report, Prof. Paula van Veen-Dirks of Groningen’s Faculty of Economics and Business, stated: “The conclusion of the Restitution Committee that the sale of the painting was a result of the deteriorating financial situation of Robert Lewenstein and Irma Klein is based on an insufficient criterion.”

She adds that the conclusion only accounted for the period 1935-1938 but did not consider the financial position in the years 1939 and 1940 (leading up to the sale).

The RC and Stedelijk Museum

Private Art Investor spoke to Eric Idema of the Restitutions Committee, who said: “None of the members – some of whom are active – have any link with the museum and have given no reason to doubt their impartiality.” 

He also cited the official release that states: “In so far as there is any kind of relationship (all members are visitors to the Museum), it has nothing to do with a conflict of interest or the appearance thereof.”

About missed information claims, Idema added that the 2018 decision was made using all information provided at the time. He did not comment on the price-fixing agreement.

The price of an artwork can be loosely determined as what a buyer is willing to pay for it. And the RC valued Bild mit Häusern five to six years ago in excess of €20m

Palmer added: “We, however, value it at several times that figure.”

At the time of publication, the Stedelijk Museum refused to answer questions in connection with the current price of the painting. Pictures of two plaques next to the painting from December 2017, though, state that “it was likely the painting was not sold voluntarily.”

The initial lawsuit was filed in February 2019, but Hagedorn believes that if this case is played out fully it can take several years: “I hope justice will be served without delay.”