Last November, three descendants of Robert Lewenstein, a Jewish man who escaped to France from the Netherlands in 1940, ran into a roadblock in their attempts to reclaim a 1909 painting by Wassily Kandinsky. According to the Lewenstein descendants, the painting, Bild mit Häusern (Painting with Houses), had been sold to to Amsterdam’s city council in 1940 amidst an environment of intense pressure due to Nazi occupation. Therefore, they alleged, the painting rightfully belonged to their family. An official advisory committee handling the legal dispute didn’t necessarily agree, but now, the mayor of Amsterdam has reportedly asked the committee to reassess their decision in the interest of giving the painting back to Lewenstein’s descendants.
“Returning this artwork will mean a lot to the victims and is important for acknowledging the injustice perpetrated,” Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s mayor, wrote in a statement. Painting with Houses is just one of countless art objects which were obtained by the Nazis during the height of their power which are now being evaluated for restitution. Last November, French heiress Léone-Noëlle Meyer discovered Camille Pissarro’s La Bergère Rentrant des Moutons (1886), a painting which had been looted by the Nazis decades earlier, at the University of Oklahoma. Meyer expressed a desire to donate the painting to the Musée d’Orsay so it could once again reside in its country of origin, but since the painting is dually owned, fulfilling such a desire isn’t so easy.
Therefore, it’s a big deal that Halsema, a powerful figure in Amsterdam, is explicitly stating her belief that the Kandinsky painting belongs with Lewenstein’s descendants, not in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. By making it clear where she stands, Halsema could potentially hasten the process of restitution, and chart a path forward for other families looking to reclaim art that was stolen from them so many years ago.