Opinions regarding claims to paintings in four Dutch museums

THE HAGUE, 8 MAY 2013 – The Restitutions Committee has published four binding expert opinions regarding claims to paintings in Dutch museums. The works in question are Dune Landscape with Deer Hunt by Gerrit Claesz Bleker in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Madonna and Child with Wild Roses by Jan van Scorel in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well by Bernardo Strozzi in Museum de Fundatie in Heino/Wijhe and River View with Mooring by Maerten Fransz van der Hulst in the Groninger Museum’s collection. The last of these paintings must be returned to the grandchildren of the heir of the former owner, Richard Semmel. The other three paintings do not have to be returned.

Richard Semmel (1875-1950) was a Berlin businessman and art collector. Immediately after the Nazis came to power, Semmel was placed under extreme pressure because of his Jewish ethnicity and his active involvement in the Deutsche Demokratische Partei (German Democratic Party). Semmel fled Nazi Germany in 1933 to escape economic and political persecution. He settled in Amsterdam first, but later went to New York.

Semmel had part of his art collection sold at auction in Amsterdam on 21 November 1933. The Restitutions Committee regards this sale as involuntary, provoked by circumstances that were directly related to the Nazi regime. Although at first glance the sale was dictated by economic factors, the committee believes that this cannot be seen in isolation from the persecution of Semmel by the Nazis. Circumstances meant that Semmel was in dire need of money to keep his company afloat and to support his family. Semmel died in New York in 1950 in reduced circumstances and without offspring. In his will he appointed a good friend, who like him had also fled Nazi Germany and who cared for him until his death, as his heir.

Four of the paintings that went under the hammer in 1933 are now in Dutch museums. The grandchildren of Semmel’s heir asked these museums to return the works of art to them. The grandchildren maintain that the four claimed paintings now belong to them by right of succession. They also declare that they have an emotional interest in the works of art because they are linked to the mutually interwoven histories of their own family and the Semmels as shaped by persecution and flight. The four museums and the grandchildren of Semmel’s heir asked the Restitutions Committee to advise on the four claims. All the parties declared in advance that the opinions would be accepted as binding.

One of the binding opinions concerns the painting Dune Landscape with Deer Hunt by Gerrit Claesz Bleker, which has been in the collection of the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem since 1934. The Committee recommends that this painting should not be returned because a reasonable case that this work was owned by Richard Semmel has not been made.

In two of the four opinions, the Committee finds that the interest put forward by the applicants in regard to the return does not carry sufficient weight to set aside the two museums’ title to the works. The paintings concerned are Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well by Bernardo Strozzi, which forms part of the collection of Museum de Fundatie in Heino/Wijhe, and Madonna and Child with Wild Roses by Jan van Scorel, which has been held by the Centraal Museum in Utrecht since 1958. In the opinion of the Committee, both museums have convincingly demonstrated that the retention of the two paintings is of great importance to their collections and to the museum-going public. On the other hand, the Committee finds that the grandchildren of Semmel’s heir’s interest in restitution carries less weight. The Committee points to the fact that these grandchildren are not related to Richard Semmel, never knew him and have no recollections of the paintings. That the art collection was important to Richard Semmel himself has no bearing on the importance of the work to his heir’s descendants. Furthermore in the past Semmel and his heir made no attempt themselves to recover the paintings. The conclusion of this weighing of interests is that neither painting has to be returned to Semmel’s heir’s grandchildren. The Committee links to this opinion the recommendation that both museums should acknowledge the history of the former owner, Richard Semmel, and the fate of his art collection, by means, for example, of a caption alongside the painting, a publication or an exhibition.

In the fourth binding opinion the assessment leads to a different conclusion. It relates to a painting in the collection of the Groninger Museum, the seventeenth-century River View with Mooring by Maerten Fransz van der Hulst, which in the past was attributed to Jan Josefsz van Goyen. The Committee advises that this work of art should be returned to the grandchildren of Semmel’s heir because the museum’s title does not carry sufficient weight to resolve the dispute in its favour. The circumstances and statements by the museum indicate that the museum has little or no interest in the painting River View with Mooring, probably because it does not fit in with its collection. The work of art has been in its repository for years and is not exhibited or loaned. Furthermore, the museum acquired the painting at no cost and there are no indications that it has incurred any expenses in regard to it, for example in having the painting restored. On the other hand, the Committee regards the emotional and moral importance of the return to the heir’s grandchildren carries more weight given the museum’s lukewarm interest in retaining the painting.

The Restitutions Committee

Since January 2002 the Restitutions Committee has been advising the Minister of Education, Culture and Science about claims regarding items of cultural value in the possession of the Dutch State. Furthermore the Restitutions Committee can give a binding opinion about a dispute concerning looted art in regard to which the State is not involved. ‘Fairness and justice’ are the guidelines. Since 2002 the Committee has given 124 recommendations, 9 of which have been binding opinions. It is to be expected that in the future an appeal to the Committee will be made more often for alternative dispute settlement. This also has to do with the project Museale Verwervingen vanaf 1933 (Museum Acquisitions since 1933), research that Dutch museums are currently undertaking into the presence of looted art in their collections. This project was initiated in 2009 by the Netherlands Museums Association and its completion is scheduled for the end of 2013.

More information

Click here for information about submissions to the Committee for binding opinions and the procedure to be followed.
For more information please contact Evelien Campfens, director of the Restitutions Committee, telephone +31 (0)70 376 59 92.