Recommendation regarding Wassermann
Please note this is an unauthorized translation of the original Dutch text of the recommendation “Advies inzake Wassermann”
On 4 April 2007, the ‘members of the community of heirs after Siegmund Wassermann’ (‘the applicants’) sent a letter to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (‘OCW’) via their representative, the lawyer J. Von Trott zu Solz in Berlin, requesting restitution of the painting Woman Playing a Lute, by A.R. von Lisiewska. The work of art in question has been part of the Netherlands Art Property Collection (‘NK collection’) under inventory number NK 1931 since it was returned to the Netherlands after the Second World War. The claimed painting is currently on loan to the Museum Het Markiezenhof in Bergen op Zoom, the Netherlands.
The application for restitution was prompted by the correspondence between the Origins Unknown Agency (‘BHG’) and the applicants regarding the above-mentioned painting that probably belonged to the Jewish-German banker Dr Sigmund Wassermann during the Second World War. In a letter dated 7 June 2007, the Minister for OCW requested the Restitutions Committee to issue a recommendation regarding this application for restitution. In response to this request, the Committee instituted a fact-finding investigation, the results of which were recorded in a draft investigatory report of 18 August 2008. This draft report was sent to the applicants for comment in a letter of 4 September 2008; the applicants responded to the contents of the report in a letter of 22 September 2008. The report was subsequently adopted on 1 December 2008. For the facts of the case, the Committee refers to the draft report.
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 applicants request the restitution of the painting Woman Playing a Lute by A.R. von Lisiewska (NK 1931). The applicants claim to be the heirs of Dr Sigmund Wassermann (‘Wassermann’). In this context, the Committee has taken cognisance of several inheritance documents, which have not led the Committee to question the status of the applicants as heirs. According to the applicants, Wassermann lost possession of the painting in question as a direct result of the Nazi regime in Germany.
The relevant facts are described in the investigatory report of 1 December 2008. The following summary of events will suffice for the present purposes. Wassermann was born in Germany in 1889 and was of Jewish origin. In 1939, he fled from the Nazi regime and settled in Amsterdam, where he worked as a banker. After the occupation of the Netherlands, Wassermann managed to escape to the United States in March 1941.
According to the applicants, Wassermann sold the painting in April 1941 to P. de Boer art dealers of Amsterdam through his lawyer C.F. van Veen (‘Van Veen’), in connection with his escape. Documents have been found in the art dealers’ archive that confirm this. For example, the Committee has taken cognisance of an inventory card that accompanies the painting, which states: ‘Commission Van Veen (...) fl: 1,000,-’. The back of the card states: ‘Bought from Van Veen (coll. Wassermann) in April 41 for fl. 1,000,-’. The inventory card also states that the painting was sold on to the Staedtisches Museum in Nuremberg in May 1941. After the war, P. de Boer art dealers reported the sale of the painting to the Netherlands Art Property Foundation (‘SNK’), indicating that the painting was originally owned by ‘Wassermann, Amsterdam’.
During his visit to the exhibition of recovered art held in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam between 20 April and 9 June 1950, Van Veen recognised the work as the former property of Wassermann. Van Veen submitted a declaration, after which he corresponded on behalf of Wassermann with Mr J. Jolles, head of the Bureau for Restoration Payments and the Restoration of Property of the Ministry of Finance (successor of the SNK), about the restitution of the work in question. It can be concluded from this correspondence that Wassermann could not afford to pay the required consideration for the restitution in full, which consisted of the purchase price of fl. 1,000,- received at the time, and was therefore forced to renounce his application for restitution. Van Veen did indicate, however, that he would be happy to discuss any other arrangement. However, on 9 May 1951, Jolles informed Van Veen that he could not deviate from the existing provisions and that he would therefore set the claim aside.
In early 1959, Van Veen and Mr H.C. Visser made another attempt to reclaim possession of the painting for Wassermann, first through the Ministry of Finance and, subsequently, the Ministry of Education, Arts and Science. It can be concluded from the extant correspondence that Wassermann was able to pay back the full purchase price at that time. On 22 January 1959, this second application for restitution was rejected by the Minister of Finance, because Wassermann had renounced his application for restitution for financial reasons in 1951. The application for restitution submitted to the Ministry of Education, Arts and Science was not successful either. Wassermann died on 28 February 1959.
The Committee finds that the negotiations held after the war between Wassermann and the Dutch restitution authorities and Ministries did not lead to a judgment by the Council for the Restoration of Rights or another competent court, nor to a settlement with a body which in hierarchy ranks above the SNK. Furthermore, the Committee finds that Wassermann’s decision in 1951 to temporarily renounce his restitution claim because of the amount of the consideration cannot be regarded as an explicit renouncement of the restitution claim. The Committee therefore concludes that this case cannot be considered to have been settled in the past and deems the applicants’ request admissible.
Pursuant to current national policy in respect of the restitution of items of cultural value, the Committee can only recommend restitution if it is deemed sufficiently probable that the work was originally the property of Wassermann and if possession thereof was relinquished involuntarily as a consequence of circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime.
Regarding the ownership of the currently claimed painting, the Committee considers the following. Based on the results of the investigation, as described earlier in considerations 3 and 4, the Committee deems it highly likely that the painting in question was the property of Wassermann in 1941.
Regarding the loss of possession, the Committee notes the following. The applicants have argued that Wassermann sold the painting in connection with his emigration. The Committee deems this statement plausible, given the facts that emerged from the investigation. For example, it has been shown that Wassermann emigrated to the United States in March 1941 and that around the same time he commissioned – through his lawyer Van Veen – the painting to P. de Boer art dealers, who subsequently bought the work in April 1941. On 2 June 1950, – on a form he filled in at the exhibition for recovered art in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – Van Veen already mentioned that the painting was sold in connection with emigration. In this context, the Committee refers to the third recommendation of the Ekkart Committee of 26 April 2001, adopted by the government, which stipulates that all sales by Jewish private owners in the Netherlands from 10 May 1940 until the end of the war are deemed involuntary, unless expressly proven otherwise. The Committee is therefore of the opinion that Wassermann lost possession of the painting involuntarily as a consequence of circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime.
Based on the above, the Committee deems the application for restitution of the claimed painting admissible. The Committee is of the opinion that no condition for repayment of the purchase price received at the time can be attached thereto. In this context, the Committee refers to the fourth recommendation of the Ekkart Committee of 26 April 2001, which stipulates that an obligation for repayment solely applies if the then seller obtained the free disposal of the proceeds. It can be concluded from the above-mentioned account of the facts that this was not the case.
The Restitutions Committee advises the Minister for Education, Culture and Science to return the painting Woman Playing a Lute by A.R. von Lisiewska (NK 1931) to the heirs of Dr Sigmund Wassermann.
Adopted at the meeting of 1 December 2008 by I.C. van der Vlies (acting chair), J.Th.M. Bank, J.C.M. Leijten, P.J.N. van Os, E.J. van Straaten, H.M. Verrijn Stuart, and signed by the acting chair and the secretary.
(I.C. van der Vlies, acting chair)
(E. Campfens, secretary)