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Around the Jewish World After Years of Struggle with State, Looted Dutch Art Heirs Go to Auction

June 16, 2003
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The heirs of a Dutch Jewish art collector who was murdered by the Nazis and whose collection was later confiscated by Dutch authorities are slowly selling it off — but a larger cache of looted World War II artworks remains in Holland’s hands.

Three Renaissance silver pieces from the famous Fritz and Eugen Gutmann art collection were sold June 10 at Christie’s in London for $3.35 million, more than double what auction house officials had expected.

One piece, a 17th-century German ewer of a nude woman on a triton blowing a conch shell, was bought by Amsterdam’s renowned Rijksmuseum, which has held the piece since it was confiscated from the Nazis.

“The three pieces of silver gilt from the Gutmann collection are, quite simply, superlative,” said Anthony Phillips, international head of Christie’s silver department. “Each piece is the work of a highly significant maker and is of the greatest artistic importance.”

Phillips called last week’s sale “extremely successful.”

The Gutmann family regained 233 works from the collection in April 2002, when the Dutch government handed over the art, which had been looted by the Nazis during World War II. Between 1945 and 2002, many of the Gutmann pieces had been exhibited in Holland’s famous government-owned museums.

The complete collection comprised a broad range of works, from Old Master pictures to European furniture, ceramics, glass, decorative objects and Asian works of art.

The family sold some 90 pieces from the collection at Christie’s in Amsterdam in mid-May, for a total of nearly $1 million.

The Gutmann collection is only a small part of a larger stockpile of Nazi war booty. There currently are over 4,000 looted works of art in Dutch public collections. Allied forces returned the artworks to the Netherlands after the war for the purpose of restitution, but the works remain in state hands.

Fritz Gutmann, a Dutch Jew, was beaten to death in a Nazi concentration camp, and his wife was gassed at Auschwitz. Their son, Bernard Goodman, a British citizen, died in 1994 after years of pursuing the return of the collection.

Bernard’s sister Lili, a journalist who lives in the United States, was present at the May auction in Amsterdam. She told how she and her brother, after winning a lawsuit against the Dutch government in 1952, had received “permission” from the court to buy back a few pieces of their father’s collection from authorities.

The judge ruled the state could not simply give them to the family because Fritz Gutmann had sold them to the Nazis. The fact that the Nazis had forced Gutmann to sell them his whole collection — and had never paid him for it – – apparently did not carry any weight in the judge’s decision.

The state also didn’t reveal at the time that it owned many more pieces from their father’s collection, Lili Gutmann said.

“At the time, it was up to us to prove these pieces had previously been stolen from our parent. The Dutch authorities did not have to prove they had acquired their art collection legally,” Lili Gutmann said.

That changed with the publication of the Ekkart report. In the late 1990s, the Dutch government assigned a special commission to investigate the complete Dutch national art collection and assess whether it contained pieces looted from Jews during World War II and later confiscated by the Dutch authorities.

The Ekkart Commission’s findings were published in 2000. It concluded that Holland owned 233 pieces from the Gutmann collection, among myriad others.

Following the report, Bernard’s son, Nick Goodman, approached the World Jewish Congress for help — together with Marei von Saher, daughter-in-law of the Dutch Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, and Christine Koenigs, the daughter of Dutch art collector Franz Koenigs. Negotiations soon began with the Dutch authorities.

The claim of the Goudstikker heirs ultimately was rejected; the Dutch court ruled that authorities did not have to return the vast art collection or any of the real estate formerly owned by Goudstikker.

The reason was that everything officially had been sold by written contract to the Dutch state during World War II; this, despite the fact that the sale had been forced and the sum paid was merely symbolic.

The absence of a written sales contract between the Gutmann family and the Nazis or the Dutch authorities swayed to the Dutch government’s decision in April 2002 to return the 233 pieces to Gutmann’s heirs. The collection officially changed hands in September 2002.

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