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

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.
Von Erich Wiedemann

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.

Part II: Benefiting from Post-War Confusion

Art dealers and museums were likewise among the culprits. As early as the 1930s, they participated eagerly in the so-called "Jewish auctions" that were held in Germany, where modern art -- much of it labelled "degenerate" by the Nazis -- left behind by Jewish refugees was sold off. The Gemeente Museum in The Hague still owns artworks from the Oppenheim collection it purchased at a 1936 auction in Munich, as well as works from the Emma Budge collection it purchased in 1937 in Berlin.

After the war, 3,500 artworks that the allied forces had confiscated in Germany were returned to the Dutch government, including 141 paintings from Goudstikker's legacy. A delegation from the Netherlands drove to the so-called "collecting point" established by the US Army in Munich and picked up every work of Dutch origin.

But not everything that was designated "stolen art" and returned to Holland had really been stolen in Holland. Many of the artworks had been traded regularly by private art dealers, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Stocking up the nation's cultural assets

The Dutch benefited from the confusion generated by World War II in order to stock up the nation's cultural assets. According to the London Declaration of 1943, the governments of the liberated nations were obliged to return artworks to their former owners. But by Dutch law, the crime of collaboration had been committed not just by the buyers, but by the sellers too -- and the sellers were mostly Jewish. In fact, only 12 percent of the artworks the Dutch government received from Germany and Austria were returned to their former owners or their inheritors. The rest passed to the foundation Nederlands Kunstbezit (NK Collection).

Those who wanted to reclaim their property had to make a formal request by Oct. 15, 1945. Those who had no receipts, drawings or photographs of their works had to provide a detailed description. The standards then applied were so rigid that many of the claimants were doomed to be sent away empty-handed. One collector got nothing because his estimate of the size of a painting was off by a few centimeters.

The best paintings -- including works by Rembrandt, Steen, Rubens, Monet, and Van Gogh, some of which are thought to be worth tens of millions of euros today -- were given to large museums. If the museums had no room for a painting, the government simply kept it. Such paintings can today be found in Dutch ministries and in embassies across the world with some of them ending up in the Queen's Palace in The Hague.

A number of paintings thought to be of inferior value were simply sold off, including some 50 works from the Goudstikker collection. They include a van Dyck that now hangs in the lobby of Dr. Oetker Ltd's headquarters in Bielefeld, Germany and a self-portrait by Baroque painter Cornelis Bega, currently in the possession of Hamburg's Kunsthalle museum. Cologne-based investigator Clemens Toussaint -- hired by Goudstikker's descendents -- has tracked down further works in Russia, Japan, South Africa, Israel, and Northern Ireland.

It was only in the mid-1990s that the affair began to be seriously looked into. Marei von Saher, daughter-in-law of the Goudstikker couple and a German citizen who resides in Greenwich, Connecticut, has demanded restitution for the lost artworks along with her daughters Chantal and Charlene. They only recently learned about the lost family property.

The right ally at the right time

Formally, the matter had passed the statute of limitations, but Marei von Saher got the World Jewish Congress (WJC) involved. She chose the right ally at the right time. The WJC had just won a $1 billion compensation claim in a trial related to gold stolen from Jewish families and hidden away in Switzerland. Elan Steinberg, then president of the WJC, announced he would use "all political and diplomatic means" in order to fight for Saher's claim.

To avert embarrassing attention to the case, the Dutch government allegedly hired a Washington-based PR firm. The agency is even said to have convinced CNN not to broadcast a report on the Goudstikker case critical of the Dutch government. But Marei von Saher didn't give up. Fearing endless litigation, the Balkenende government ordered all works from the Goudstikker collection owned by the Netherlands to be returned to Saher. Where the roughly 900 other works listed in Jacques Goudstikker's little black book have ended up is still unclear.

Clemens Toussaint and his investigators have discovered two further important works from the Goudstikker collection in Cologne: Constant Troyon's "Cow on the Pasture" and a "Rural Scene" by David Teniers. Both paintings fell to the renowned Wallraf-Richartz Museum after the war. "The statute of limitations may have been passed," says Andreas Blühm, director of the museum, "but we're giving the paintings back.

Toussaint is resolved to find more of the missing paintings. This much is certain: the Goudstikker case is not yet closed.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.