The Netherlands Is Still Hoarding a Massive Collection of Art Looted From Jews by Nazis

Tens of thousands of artworks stolen from Jews during World War II are still in the hands of the Dutch authorities and in museums in Holland – and they’re not giving them back

By Avraham Roet Sep 07, 2017

Earlier this year, the city of Deventer, Holland, played host to an exhibition of works of art looted from Jews during the Holocaust. The show, held in the Bergkerk Cathedral in this town east of Amsterdam, featured 75 pieces, and was the initiative of two local art historians, Eva Kleeman and Daaf Ledeboer. The married couple were assisted in their efforts by Prof. Rudi Ekkart, an art historian who for the past 20 years has headed the Origins Unknown Agency, which deals with looted art in Holland.

Much of the art confiscated from Jews during the German occupation can still be found in warehouses belonging to the Dutch state, or in museums around the country. Because the Dutch authorities have been remiss in preserving archives and documentation, however, it’s not possible to make an accurate appraisal of the value of the plundered art, although unofficial estimates place it at between 150 million and 600 million Dutch guilders in 1940 terms, or between 3 and 12 billion euros.

Though the war ended more than seven decades ago, the scale of the thefts from Jews by the both the Germans and the Dutch people themselves – not only during World War II but afterward as well – is still coming to light. Following the German conquest of the Netherlands, on May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler and his deputy Hermann Goering began taking an intense personal interest in the acquisition of art, in particular paintings by Old Masters. Hitler intended to establish – in Linz, Austria, near the village where he was born – the world’s largest museum of classical art and objects. To that end, he ordered the confiscation of art in every country occupied by the Third Reich. At the same time, Goering began stealing obsessively for his own private collection, often competing with Hitler for the same items.
In Holland they found fertile ground for their efforts, as the country was home to a large number of art dealers, especially in Amsterdam. Many were Jews, some of whom had only recently settled in the Netherlands, in the wake of anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, Austria and Poland. They believed they would be safe from the Nazis in the free, democratic and neutral Netherlands. In the 1930s, in the midst of the global depression, art prices were relatively low. Dealers with the requisite capital could buy works cheaply and amass large collections.

Holland’s conquest by the German army over the course of just four days came as a stunning blow to the Dutch people in general and to the local Jewish community in particular. Most of the borders were closed, and attempts to flee, though widespread, were rarely successful. The Germans were successful in imposing their rule in large measure thanks to the collaboration and betrayal of their country by members of the local Nazi Party, who already then constituted about 10 percent of the population, one of the highest proportions in Europe.

The country’s art dealers soon discovered that the Germans were very interested in works by Old Masters and the like – and prices began to climb accordingly. Many of the merchants were happy to cooperate and trafficked in looted works; others, mainly Jews, were forced to follow suit, often giving up their holdings for bargain-basement prices. During the next five years, thousands of paintings were moved from Holland into Germany, most of them having been confiscated or extorted from Jews.

A large number of artworks were stolen through an institution that came to be called the Liro Bank. Established by the Germans on the shell of the expropriated Jewish-owned bank Lippmann, Rosenthal and Co., it became the major vehicle for wholesale, but nominally legal theft from the Dutch Jews. It was Liro Bank that handled the sale of looted Jewish property of all kinds, using the revenues to cover the expenses entailed in deporting the Jews from Holland. The victims were forced to pay the authorities for moving them from their homes to ghettos, and later for transporting them to concentration and death camps in Holland and beyond. The Dutch railroad was punctilious about exacting payment for each person it carried on its cattle cars toward their death.

Another example of Dutch collaboration with the Germans can be found in Rotterdam’s Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum. Even before the war, Daniel George van Beuningen (1885-1955), whose family dominated the business of transporting coal and other goods to Germany, was thought to be the richest person in this port city. A compulsive art collector, he ended up donating part of his collection to the Boijmans Museum, as it was then known, on the condition that the institution add his name to its own.

Only in recent years, however, has the scale of Van Beuningen’s cooperation with the occupiers become known. During the war, he traded in classical artworks plundered from Jews and sold them to Hitler, Goering and others. Ronny Naftaniel, a longtime head of the Centrum Informatie and Dokumentatie Israël – the local organization fighting anti-Semitism – and a former spokesman of the Dutch Jewish community, has demanded the removal of Van Beuningen’s name from the museum, so far unsuccessfully. More to the point, the museum still has in its possession the looted works and refuses adamantly to part with them.

It is now known that, in order to acquire the art collections for the Germans and for himself, Van Beuningen embezzled the company in which he was a partner to the tune of a million guilders (about 20 million euros today). A legal process demanding the return of looted collections in which the businessman traded is ongoing, but the Dutch courts have so far rejected the heirs’ demands.

International pressure

After occupying Holland, the Germans waited more than half a year before issuing anti-Jewish ordinances. Even before official action was taken, however, Jewish art dealers began trying to flee or to arrange fictitious transfers of their property to non-Jews.

One of the most prominent of these dealers was Jacques Goudstikker, who in addition to owning many Old Dutch and Flemish paintings (including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Jan Steen), had in his possession classical works from Italy and France, among other places. Goudstikker owned two well-known castles, in addition to a magnificent house on Herengracht, one of Amsterdam’s most prestigious addresses.

In the early days of the occupation, Goudstikker decided to flee Holland, together with his wife and son. The family embarked on a freighter bound for England, but during the journey he fell into the ship’s hold and was killed – a mysterious death that has not been satisfactorily explained to this day. Goudstikker employees who remained in Holland sold his artworks at sharp discounts to Goering. Later, his firm was taken over by a German banker, who went on buying plundered artworks, which were in turn transferred to Germany.

Only a small number of Jewish art dealers succeeded in selling their businesses to non-Jewish trustees, thereby averting their confiscation by the Germans. More often, Jewish dealers fled to England or the United States in the war, abandoning valuable artworks in Holland, or selling them to finance their escape. The assets left behind were seized by the Germans, on the grounds that they were enemy property. Most of them ended up in the hands of Hitler and Goering. There were also a large number of suicides among the Jewish population immediately after the German conquest, and the property of those who took their own lives, too, including classic works of art, was confiscated and shipped to Germany.

The majority of Holland’s Jews were ultimately deported to Auschwitz and Sobibor, and the property that remained in their possession, which included many works of art, was stolen by Dutch collaborators and transported directly to Germany for sale.

The competition between Goering and Hitler had the effect of pushing up the prices for art. Goering displayed no special discretion or orientation when it came to art, but rather grabbed everything he could lay his hands on. Inspired by their leaders, many German officers and administrators stationed in Holland, Belgium and France also helped themselves to the bounty. Many German museums took advantage of the opportunity as well to expand their collections.

The Allies, aware of the art-looting phenomenon, decided, as early as 1942-1943, that all plundered property would be returned after the war to its country of origin, without compensation being made to the then-current owner. To facilitate this, the Americans established the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program. In 1945, the Netherlands government set up the Netherlands Art Property Foundation (SNK) to address the phenomenon. Anyone who knew of artworks owned by his or her family that had been stolen could fill out an SNK form requesting their return. Tens of thousands of requests poured in, despite the fact that the majority of Holland’s Jews (some 75 percent of a prewar population of 140,000 Jews) were murdered in the war, and of those who survived, at least a quarter were children, who were unlikely to know much about their parents’ art collections.

A substantial number of SNK applicants indeed took their property back, but that still left tens of thousands of items in the hands of Dutch state authorities after their repatriation from Germany.

After SNK was dissolved, in 1957, responsibility for the art still in the possession of the Dutch state was transferred to its Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, which went to lengths to ensure that the looted works would remain in Dutch museums and their storerooms. In the 1970s, the ministry decided to sell many works, with the proceeds going into state coffers.

For example, the entire collection of Jewish banker Fritz Mannheimer, who died on the eve of the war, was seized by the Germans. The collection was subsequently returned intact to the Dutch authorities, and government representatives sold off some of the works. Hundreds of items remain in the Rijksmuseum, the national museum, in Amsterdam.

Toward the end of the 1990s, following international public pressure, the Dutch, like the governments of many other countries involved in the war, started to deal with still-unresolved problems of property and life related to World War II. The Dutch established several different commissions of inquiry. One of them, the Origins Unknown Agency, found that many items that were supposed to have been returned to their owners were still in the state’s possession. The government published information about some 5,000 of them, and attempts were made to locate the rightful owners.

The heirs of Jacques Goudstikker were among those who received some satisfaction. In 2006, members of his family received the first of some 350 works, although they say that leaves another 900 pieces that were plundered. Leading the struggle for the restoration of Goudstikker’s property is his daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, and her daughter, Charlene. Von Saher’s father, a former member of the German national soccer squad, was also a member of his country’s Nazi Party.

Though Marei von Saher never met her father-in-law (she was born only in 1944, and met her husband, Eduard von Saher, in the U.S. in the 1960s), and is related to the Goudstikkers only by marriage – she waged a relentless legal fight against Dutch authorities, and in 2006 won a court case in which 202 paintings were returned to her. Some of them were immediately sold, fetching a total of $35 million, which was then used to pay a battery of lawyers in the United States. The family, which has had little connection to the Jewish communities in Holland, the United States or Israel, continues to press for the return of artworks from museums and private individuals in Holland and elsewhere.

Claimants give up

During the war, the Dutch government-in-exile stated that it would not recognize as valid any sale, transfer or plunder of artworks that were moved from Holland to Germany, and that it considered all such transactions null and void. After the war, all the works of art that were tracked down – tens of thousands in number – were unilaterally repatriated to the Netherlands.

How did all the looted works of art find their way back to Holland from Germany? The Netherlands authorities realized that the return of the artworks was dependent on the American occupation forces, and that it would be difficult to prove the country of origin of a substantial number of the items it wanted to claim. Fearing that the Netherlands would lose out, the authorities decided to take action to ensure that as many works as possible would be returned to Holland. To that end, they appointed Alphonsus Vorenkamp, a Netherlands-born art expert and former U.S. Army officer, living in Washington, D.C., as their representative to the General Commissary for Economic Interests in Germany. Lt. Col. Vorenkamp arranged for tens of thousands of art items to be transferred to the Netherlands, including many that had not even been stolen from there.

Thus, after the war, the Netherlands was able to enjoy revenues from the sale of art collections it had received at no cost, and also benefited from the addition of other prized works, which were divided among museums in the country or have remained in the possession of the Culture Ministry to this day.

The pre-war owners and their heirs, most of whom were Jews, demanded the return of the art, even if they had received partial or full payment for it during the war. They argued that the collections had been sold under duress and that there was no justification for their being confiscated now by the state – and at no cost, no less. Many of the Dutch Jews who were hidden by non-Jewish families paid them large amounts of money for the privilege, an operation that was often financed by the sale to collaborators of artwork and other objects that they had secretly retained when German authorities seized their property.

But in many cases, following protracted, exhausting and unsuccessful bureaucratic proceedings, claimants gave up on getting their property back from Dutch authorities. A case in point is that of Bernard Houthakker, an Amsterdam antiques dealer who survived Theresienstadt. He provided information to the Netherlands government about a valuable painting that had been stolen from him and had been returned to the state, but ultimately, for unclear reasons, abandoned the quest.

Another story that remains unresolved is that of Catalina von Pannwitz-Roth (1876-1959), a German-born Jew of Argentine descent, who during the war sold off six paintings, including one by Rembrandt, in return for an exit visa from Holland to Switzerland. The paintings were returned to the Netherlands, but after the war, Pannwitz-Roth waived their restitution and today the works are in the possession of the state.

The banker Robert May (1873-1962) was on the board of directors of the prewar Lippmann, Rosenthal bank, which the Nazis used as a conduit for stolen property. The person the Nazis appointed to manage the bank was acquitted of collaboration charges by a Dutch court following testimony by May, who said the man had behaved “properly.” The painting “Portrait of a Man,” by H.W. Wieringa, that May had sold during the war (and that ended up in Goering’s hands), was returned to Holland after the war, but May refused an offer to buy it back, and it remained in the hands of the state. When his heirs applied for restitution, in 2008, they were turned down.

Generally speaking, in almost every case where Jews declined to take back artworks their family had owned, it was because the Netherlands government demanded payment of the amount the Germans had paid its collaborators for the works – even though the state had not had to pay for repatriation of the art.

Still, there are also cases in which intervention by the courts and by the public commission produced positive results. An example is the collection of Friedrich “Fritz” Gutmann (1886-1944). In 1942, Gutmann was forced to sell his artworks to German dealers. He and his wife, Louise Gutmann von Landau, both of them converted Jews, were murdered – he in Theresienstadt, she in Auschwitz. After the war, their entire collection was returned to the Dutch government. The Gutmanns’ two sons were compelled to go to court in an attempt to get the works back. In 1952, a court ruled that the art would be returned to the heirs, on condition that they pay the Dutch authorities the amount of money their father had received from the Germans for the works, to provide for his livelihood. It was only 50 years later, in 2002, that the public commission decided to return the collection to the family without payment.

During the war, Jacques Hedeman, a textile merchant, stored a painting he owned by the 17th-century artist Jacob Gerritsz, in the vault of an Amsterdam bank, before escaping to Switzerland. The bank turned the painting, “Shepherdess with Child in Landscape,” over to the Germans. In 2002, the Dordrecht Museum purchased the work from a private individual in Germany. A subsequent investigation established that the painting had been looted from Hedeman. Ultimately, after the case received extensive publicity, the museum and Hedeman’s heirs reached an “agreement” by which the painting would remain in the museum and the latter would pay an undisclosed amount to the heirs.

One question that remains unanswered is why Dutch Jewry has not intervened as a community in the matter of the return of artworks to their owners. Similarly, world Jewry – the World Jewish Congress or the Claims Conference – never tried to become involved. In Israel, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, founded by the Claims Conference agency and the government of Israel, is supposed to deal with looted Jewish property. However, none of these bodies has yet taken action in regard to the return of artworks.

Underlying the WJRO’s failure to act for the return of works of art is, apparently, the fact that some of the property plundered from Jews in Europe, including works by Old Masters, ended up in the United States and other Allied countries. It’s well known that American Jewry categorically ignores the issue of looted Jewish property that is in the United States. American Jewry’s avoidance of dealing with these issues is a subject that merits separate treatment.

For its part, the German government announced recently that it will step up its efforts to return looted artworks.

Holland’s rigid policy on the return of objects of art was modified somewhat at the beginning of the 2000s, but remains far from perfect. To this day, anyone who asks for his property back is compelled to go through endless bureaucratic procedures that make it difficult to obtain the items. Various heirs of major art dealers have chosen the legal route, and in some cases have been able to get part of their property back.

Avraham Roet, a Dutch-born Holocaust survivor, was one of the founders of the Israeli government’s Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets, and was its first chairman.