In recent art world news, recent restitution efforts of the Netherlands for returning looted art have come under scrutiny. Some international critics assert that Dutch policies for restitution of looted art have become stricter once again.
Following World War II marked a “period in Dutch history when a cold cynicism toward Holocaust survivors meant that thousands of masterly works were rescued from the Nazis only to end up as Dutch national property” in which many of the works were displayed in Dutch museums. The Allies returned about 8,000 to 9,000 works of art that had been found in Germany to the Netherlands. This represented less than half of the works reported missing by the Holocaust survivor claimants. By the early 1950s, the Dutch government announced that the restitution process had been completed and had stopped accepting claims – only about 500 to 1,000 works had been returned to their rightful owners at the time.
The Netherlands was once ridiculed for its obtuse efforts at recovery of looted works, but in the late 1990s the country embraced “progressive and pioneering efforts that have led it to be considered a model for enlightened restitution.” While there were efforts in some European countries after the war to compensate victims of Nazi looting, new scholarship and media coverage in the 1990s persuaded other countries to review their own restitution policies in an effort to improve the restitution process.
In recent years, the country’s restitution policy requires the government panel that determines restitution cases to balance the interests of national museums against the claims by Holocaust survivors or their heirs. In particular, the policy requires the panel to weigh “the significance of the work to public art collections” against the emotional attachment of the claimant.
As a recent example of the effect of the policy, in 2013, a claim for the Bernardo Strozzi painting entitled “Christ and the Samaritan Woman,” filed by the heirs of a German-Jewish refugee, was rejected because the work was important to the Dutch museum that displayed it.
According to Anne Webber, chairwoman of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, “[t]he balance-of-interests test means that even if a claimant submits a claim to the restitution committee for a work of art, and even if the panel finds that the claim is good, is right, the claimants don’t automatically get their painting back, nor do they get any remedy.”
Last fall the Dutch culture minister had outlined some planned changes to the country’s current restitution policy, including term limits for members of the restitution panel and the establishment of a “World War II Expertise Center, a centralized contact point for information and research that will open this autumn, as part of the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam.”
The lapses of the Dutch restitution process after World War II and the Dutch efforts to address them are the subjects of a new exhibition entitled “Looted Art—Before, During and After WWII,” which recently opened on May 12, 2017 at the medieval Bergkerk cathedral in Deventer, The Netherlands.