Recommendation regarding Letowski
In a letter dated 1 February 2007, the Minister for Culture, Education and Science (OCW) asked the Restitutions Committee to issue a recommendation regarding a decision to be taken on the application submitted on 3 January 2007 by Mr R.L. (hereafter referred to as the applicant) concerning the restitution of five artworks from the Dutch National Art Collection (NK 126, NK 1489, NK 1589, NK 2008 and NK 2199).
In response to the request for a recommendation, the Restitutions Committee instituted a fact-finding investigation, during which the Committee requested additional information from the applicant in a letter dated 19 March 2007. The applicant informed the Committee via an undated letter, received on 2 May 2007, that he had no further information to support his application. The results of the investigation were recorded in a draft report dated 11 June 2007, which was then submitted to the applicant for comments. Given the fact that the applicant has failed to respond to the draft report, the Committee assumes that the applicant has no further information. The draft report was also passed on to the Minister for OCW, who informed the Committee that no additional information was available. The report was adopted on 6 August 2007. For the facts of the case, the Committee refers to the report, which is considered an integral part of this recommendation. Two of the works currently being claimed by the applicant, NK 126 and NK 1489, are also the subject of other applications for restitution that have been submitted to the Restitutions Committee, namely RC 1.51 and RC 1.15 respectively.
a) The Committee has drawn up its opinion with due regard for the relevant (lines of) policy issued by the Ekkart Committee and the government.
b) The Committee asked itself whether it is acceptable that an opinion to be issued is influenced by its potential consequences for decisions in subsequent cases. The Committee resolved that such influence cannot be accepted, save in cases where special circumstances apply, since allowing such influence would be impossible to justify to the applicant concerned.
c) The Committee then asked itself how to deal with the circumstance that certain facts can no longer be ascertained, that certain information has been lost or has not been recovered, or that evidence can no longer be otherwise compiled. On this issue, the Committee believes that if the problems that have arisen can be attributed at least in part to the lapse of time, the associated risk should be borne by the government, save in cases where exceptional circumstances apply.
d) The Committee believes that insights and circumstances which, according to generally accepted views, have evidently changed since the Second World War should be granted the status of new facts.
e) Involuntary loss of possession is also understood to mean sale without the art dealer’s consent by ‘Verwalters’ [Nazi-appointed caretakers who took over management of firms owned by Jews] or other custodians not appointed by the owner of items from the old trading stock under their custodianship, in so far as the original owner or his heirs did not receive all the profits of the transaction, or in so far as the owner did not expressly waive his rights after the war.
The applicant requests the restitution of three artworks (NK 2008, NK 2199 and NK 126) in his capacity as heir to his grandfather Franciszek Letowski (1880-1940), and the restitution of two paintings (NK 1589 and NK 1489) in his capacity as heir to his father Czeslaw Letowski (1904 –1965). The applicant is also acting on behalf of his sister, H. L.-A.
The following facts, provided by the applicant, are the basis for the application for restitution. In June 1935, the applicant’s father and grandfather (both Jewish) left Poland to start a business in Paris, France. After returning to visit family in Poland in July 1939, the threat of war made it impossible for them to return to Paris and they were forced to remain in Poland, leaving their belongings behind in the French capital. After World War II broke out, the family’s entire possessions, both in Poland and France, were looted by the occupying forces. Franciszek Letowski, the applicant’s grandfather, was transported to a camp in Poland and during an attempt to escape, was shot and killed. The applicant’s father, Czeslaw Letowski, was arrested by the Nazis in 1940 and sent to a labour camp. He survived the war and died in 1965. At the time of his arrest, the rest of the family were driven from their home in the Wadolki-Bucki (Lomza district, Poland) after which the house was plundered by the Nazis. A former neighbour of the Letowski family in Poland confirms the plundering of the Letowski’s home in a statement dated 17 August 2006 that was submitted by the applicant with his application for restitution: ‘The house was robbed of all the valuables, pieces of art and of anything that had some value’.
According to the applicant, the two claimed paintings, currently numbers NK 1589 and NK 1489 in the Dutch National Art Collection, were amongst his father’s possessions that were looted in Poland. ‘After five years of wandering during the occupation and return to our home town we found our house totally burnt down, and as I have mentioned above, robbed of those two paintings and all other valuables’. The artworks belonging to his grandfather that were looted in France include three pieces, NK 126, NK 2008 and NK 2199. Franciszek Letowski, the applicant’s grandfather, is said to have bought these works in France before the war. When asked, the applicant told the Restitutions Committee that he based his identification of these artworks as being those lost by his family on oral descriptions given by his father shortly before his death in 1965. The applicant has no more specific information at his disposal.
The Origins Unknown Agency’s fact-finding investigation has revealed that, during the occupation of the Netherlands, the five artworks were all in Dutch hands at one time or another. The Restitutions Committee has already undertaken an investigation into one of the claimed paintings, a panel by J.W. Bilders (NK 1489), that showed the painting to have been in the possession of J. Goudstikker N.V., an art dealership in Amsterdam, as early as May 1940, and very possibly before.
Given that the manner and timing of the acquisition of the claimed works by their respective Dutch owners is not entirely known, it cannot be ruled out, based on the details of the investigation, that any one of the five works found its way from Poland or Paris to the Netherlands after 1939 or 1940 respectively – the time when the applicant claims his family lost their possessions. Nonetheless, the Committee’s investigation, which included consulting Polish and French historical sources and more detailed art historical studies, has failed to uncover any further evidence to indicate that the provenance of the artworks concerned is either Polish or French.
Pursuant to national policy in respect of the restitution of works of art, as contained in the Ekkart Committee’s eighth recommendation of April 2001, restitution can only be recommended if ‘the title thereto has been proved with a high degree of probability and there are no indications of the contrary’.
In this respect, the Committee deems that since the only clue to the identification of the works looted from the Letowski family are recollections of an oral description given to the applicant by his father in 1965, the Committee concludes that under the circumstances, this is insufficient grounds for admitting the application for restitution. They have also taken into consideration that indications to the contrary have been found in the case of at least one of the claimed works.
The Restitutions Committee advises the Minister for Education, Culture and Science to reject Mr R. L. application for restitution of the five artworks in the Dutch National Art Collection, NK 126, NK 1489, NK 1589, NK 2008 and NK 2199.
Adopted at the meeting of 6 August 2007,
I.C. van der Vlies (chair ad interim)
P.J.N. van Os
E.J. van Straaten
H.M. Verrijn Stuart