Nazi-Era Profiteering: Holland Returns Art Stolen from a Jewish Collector

By Erich Wiedemann

Marei von Saher, daughter-in-law of Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, has successfully reclaimed works first stolen by Nazi officials and then quietly appropriated by the Dutch government. The case sets a ticklish precedent for museums in Holland.

Jews once led a happy life in Holland. "Is there any other country where you can eat your Passover lamb so peacefully, where you can break as many twigs off trees to build your Pesach hut?" asked poet Karl Gutzkow in his 1834 novella "The Sadducee of Amsterdam."

The question was rhetorical; everyone at the time knew Holland to be a stronghold of tolerance, which is why so many Sephardim Jews settled there. But 100 years later, the refugees who returned to Holland from Nazi concentration camps in the East weren't always greeted with quite the same openness and acceptance. In some cases, in fact, Dutch Jews returning from Nazi camps were told the property they had left behind would be used to pay off back taxes that had not been paid while they were out of the country.

Dési Goudstikker, widow of the Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, was lucky. When she returned after 1945, The Hague declared the remains of the Goudstikker collection -- originally 1,113 paintings -- enemy property: The paintings had fallen into the hands of Nazi honcho and Hitler confidante Hermann Göring. But she was allowed to keep her house in Amsterdam and her castle near Breukelen -- and she was still well-off enough to buy back some of the more important paintings.

Half a century later, the Goudstikker's have finally been able to reclaim the rest of the collection. The government of Minister-President Jan Peter Balkenende has revoked a court decision from 1952 and promised compensation.

"We're losing a substantial part of our collection," says Alexander von Grevenstein, director of Maastricht's Bonnefanten Museum. He has had to give up almost 40 works that once belonged to Goudstikker. But more important than the Goudstikker case is the precedent the ruling may set. After all, Dutch museums are stuffed full of works appropriated from private owners.

The black noteboook of Jacques Goudstikker

Jacques Goudstikker escaped from Amsterdam on May 14, 1940, four days after the German invasion, in order to seek asylum in England. But his luck didn't hold. Travelling on the SS Bodegraven, he fell into a cargo hatch and broke his neck and his small, black notebook was found on his corpse. In it, he had listed the name of every oil painting in his collection.

Two months later, the Goudstikker collection -- the most important in Holland -- was "Aryanized." Formally, it became the property of German banker Alois Miedl. But 779 paintings were instantly claimed by Hermann Göring, and the rest landed on the auction block.

Miedl paid 550,000 guilders for his company's new assets while Göring paid 2 million guilders. The actual value of the collection is still a matter of debate, but all can agree that it was far more than Miedl and Göring shelled out. Legally, though, the case is a difficult one; the paintings were neither rightfully purchased nor were they stolen outright.

One of the principle questions is whether the deal was made under duress. After all, Goudstikker was not an art collector but an art dealer. He had always considered his paintings as merchandise meant for the market. Furthermore, Goudstikker's widow, who held a 15 percent share of his business, had explicitly approved the sale of the paintings.

Still though, the buyer in this case, Hermann Göring, raises eyebrows. He was, during World War II, an active art dealer and one of the nation's most voracious collectors. By 1945, he had bought about 1,800 works for his private collection. But he also ruthlessly exploited his substantial political weight in order to put pressure on his business partners. Jewish art dealers and collectors who sold on his conditions could expect to be allowed to flee the country.

The banker Alois Miedl profited too. Towards the end of the war, Spanish authorities seized 22 valuable paintings that he had deposited in a shed in the port of Bilbao. More paintings were later found in the safe of a Swiss bank.

Banks didn't play a pretty role in the expropriation of the Jews, including Dutch banks. Though they claim to have followed a policy of passive resistance, the opposite was in fact true, says Gerald Aalders, a historian at the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in Amsterdam. Almost all major banks purchased Jewish artworks and stocks at cut-rate prices, including the predecessors of the two largest banks active in the Netherlands today, ING and ABN Amro Bank.

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