Dutch panel for looted art claims must change course, report finds

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Dutch panel for looted art claims must change course, report finds
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam displays many works that had been looted by the Nazis in hopes of finding the rightful owners in 1950. A review commissioned by the Dutch culture minister found that the country’s art restitution panel showed too little empathy to victims of Nazi aggression and sided too often with museums. Rijksmuseum via The New York Times.

by Nina Siegal

AMSTERDAM (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For years, the Netherlands was heralded as a leader in the effort to remedy the injustice of Nazi looting during World War II. It was praised for taking action to research stolen art and return it to its rightful owners.

But that reputation has been eroding this past decade as a government panel that handles claims from victims and their heirs, the Dutch Restitutions Commission, has drawn criticism for decisions that some viewed as petty and unsympathetic.

Now, a committee convened by the minister of culture to assess the Restitutions Commission’s track record has concluded in a report issued Monday that the Dutch had moved in the wrong direction.

Two of the panel’s seven members, including its chairman, immediately resigned.

At the center of the controversy is a policy adopted by the restitution panel in 2012 to “balance the interests” of claimants against those of museums.

Many Dutch institutions have housed stolen works since the war, when officials sent Nazi-looted works back to the countries they had been taken from, on the premise that the works would be returned to rightful owners once they were identified.

But after considering the “balance of interests,” the Dutch restitution panel in recent years has denied some claims, with the justification that the painting, sculpture or object in question had become more important to museums than to heirs.

Monday’s report recommends doing away with the “balance” test.

“If it’s looted art and there’s an heir, the interests of the museum shouldn’t be taken into account,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, a lawyer who led the panel that wrote the report. “We’re trying to strive for justice.”

The Restitutions Commission’s former chairman, Alfred Hammerstein, declined to comment on the reasons for his resignation.

The remaining members of the restitution panel said in a joint statement that they welcomed the “constructive recommendations in the report,” and would make “best efforts to adapt its working practices such that they are perceived as being less remote. This will include intensifying communication with applicants and formulating recommendations and decisions even more understandably.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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