AMSTERDAM – The Netherlands has been heralded for years as a leader in efforts to eradicate the injustice of the Nazi looting during World War II. It has been commended for taking steps to research stolen art and return it to its rightful owners.
But that reputation has waned over the past decade as the government body handling claims from victims and their heirs, the Dutch Restitution Commission, criticizing decisions some viewed as petty and unsympathetic.
Now a committee convened by the minister of culture to assess the track record of the Restitutions Commission found in a report released on Monday that the Dutch were essentially moving in the wrong direction.
The report avoids harsh criticism of the panel and at first glance appears to be just an administrative correction of course. However, the results were provocative enough that two of the panel’s seven members, including its chair, resigned immediately.
At the center of the controversy is a policy that was adopted by the Restitution Committee in 2012 to weigh the interests of the applicants against those of the museums.
Many Dutch institutions have housed stolen works since the war, when officials sent works looted by Nazis back to the countries from which they were taken, provided that the works were returned to their rightful owners once they were identified.
After examining the “balance of interests”, the Dutch Restitution Committee has rejected some allegations in recent years on the grounds that the painting, sculpture or object in question has become more important to museums than to heirs.
Monday’s report recommended abolishing the balance test. The restitution body had to become “more sensitive” and “less formalistic” in its responses to demands.
“When it comes to looted art and there is an heir, the interests of the museum shouldn’t be considered,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, an attorney who chaired the body that drafted the report, in a telephone interview. “We try to pursue justice.”
The “balancing of interests” policy has been widely criticized by international restitution experts, including Stuart E. Eizenstat, State Department advisor and one of the architects of the Washington Principles, an international treaty that established guidelines for countries to handle in 1998, works of art created during World War II were looted.
In a 2018 opinion piece in the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, two leading international restitution experts challenged the Dutch government. It had “dashed the hopes raised 20 years ago at the Washington Conference that fairness and justice would prevail and that looted property would be returned to its rightful owners,” they wrote.
The review panel, headed by Mr Kohnstamm, questioned applicants, their lawyers, committee members, museum officials and external restitution experts about the Dutch process for several months. His report suggests that the government resume systematic research into the war history of works of art in the hopes of finding victims of looting by the Nazis or their heirs. issue a clear set of guidelines to explain how the refund process works; and set up a “help desk” through which applicants are guided.
Mr Kohnstamm said the Review Committee found that there were at least 15 policy documents and letters to Parliament setting out the Dutch rules for processing reimbursement claims, which made it extremely difficult for an ordinary citizen to understand like you Case would be judged.
The former chairman of the Restitutions Commission, Alfred Hammerstein, declined to comment on the reasons for his resignation.
The rest of the restitution panel members said in a joint statement that they welcomed the “constructive recommendations in the report” and “would make every effort to adapt its working practices so that they are perceived as less remote. This includes intensifying communication with applicants and making recommendations and decisions even more understandable. “
Taco Dibbits, the director of the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum, said in a telephone interview that he hoped the Dutch government would accept the recommendations. “We don’t want things in our museums that have a history of war crimes and robbery,” he said.
In particular, the balance of interests is always inappropriate. “If I have a stolen bike and ride it and the person who stole it asks at some point, I can’t say, ‘Actually, I use it a lot so I can’t return it. ‘That’s basically what matters. Ultimately, I don’t think we can weigh the impact on society now against the weight of the injustice of the past. “
Because of their fondness for Dutch Golden Age art, which they believed represented a great Germanic tradition, the Nazis looted an enormous amount of art from the Netherlands during World War II. Works were confiscated and looted or sold under the guise of legality as Jewish art dealers were pressured to both mediate art sales and sell their own businesses at drastically reduced prices, under threats of deportation or death.
After the war, when the Allies brought thousands of works of art back to the Netherlands, the Dutch established the Netherlands Art Property Foundation, which returned several hundred items and auctioned about 4,000 works, including 1,700 paintings.
It considered its work complete in 1951 and closed its doors. However, several thousand works of art had not yet been returned and were included in the Dutch art collection known as NK. In 1998, in addition to signing the Washington Principles, the Dutch government signed the Work Return Effort through the establishment of the Origins Unknown Committee, which actively dealt with the history of works of art and established a new policy for dealing with refunds.
However, a major return of 202 works from the collection of Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker in 2006 caused problems for some members of the government. Newspaper articles said these works were too valuable for the Dutch public to leave the country.
Gert-Jan van den Bergh, a Dutch lawyer who has handled several international reimbursement cases, said the Goudstikker reimbursement was a turning point for policy makers.
At this point he said: “The Dutch state is beginning to claim ownership of the returned works, while after the war the Allies handed over the works with the very clear instruction that the Dutch state could find its rightful owner. “
The Restitutions Committee, which began its work in 2002, negotiated 163 cases involving 1,620 works of art and returned 588 works. However, critics say the panel is increasingly weighing the state’s preference to retain art against evidence provided by the applicant that the work was looted.
Origins Unknown closed its operations and disbanded in 2007, as did the research on state collections, although the Dutch Association of Museums required its members to check their own digs for art that might have been illegally acquired between 1933 and 1945.
In 2012, the Restitutions Committee added a new criterion for the processing of claims, known as “standards for adequacy and fairness”, which aims to weigh the interests of national museums against an applicant’s commitment to the art in question.
When in 2013 the heirs of a German-Jewish refugee sought the return of the Bernardo Strozzi painting “Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well”, which is kept by the Museum de Fundatie, The restitution committee rejected her application and said: “The preservation of the painting is of great importance for the museum’s collection and the museum’s visitors.”
More recently, in 2018, the Restitutions Commission rejected a request for a Wassily Kandinsky “Painting with Houses” that was sold by its Jewish owners in 1940 when they tried to flee the Netherlands after the Nazi invasion. The panel questioned whether the painting had really been sold under duress by the Nazis, compared to other financial problems that arose prior to the invasion, and ruled that the “heir has no special bond with him” while “the work an important place in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. “
James Palmer, a Canadian attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Kandinsky case, said the decision reflected “the controlled and biased organization that preserves works of art and other cultural artefacts and that openly ignore the claims of Holocaust victims.”
Mr van den Bergh was one of the experts interviewed for the report published on Monday. He said the Netherlands’ reputation for responding to applicants has been one of the best in Europe. “What happened is on the way into which we entered an atmosphere of argument, not a process of truth-finding,” he said.
“We have to go back to a process of truth-finding and not get caught up in a contentious atmosphere where the museums and the Dutch state were seen as opponents of the applicants,” he said. “We are together in this process and we are in the process of healing historical injustices.”