Amsterdam Returns Kandinsky Painting to Heirs

The painting from 1909 had been part of the collection of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum since 1940.

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with houses, 1909, oil / canvas, 98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Image in the public domain (detail)
Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with houses, 1909, oil / canvas, 98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Image in the public domain (detail)

An eight-year restitution case was closed on August 26, 2021. The painting Painting with Houses by Wassily Kandinsky, exhibited in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, will now be returned to the heirs of the former owners. 

Kandinsky's painting from 1909 was auctioned in October 1940 at the Amsterdam auction house Frederik Muller & Co. The buyer was the then director of the Stedelijk Museum, David Röell. While the auction catalog only named "Property L., Amsterdam" as provenance, later research by the museum revealed the names of the former owners.

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with houses, 1909, oil / canvas, 98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Image in the public domain (detail)
Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with houses, 1909, oil / canvas, 98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Image in the public domain (detail)

Painting with Houses was acquired by the Dutch-Jewish factory owner Emanuel Albert Lewenstein in 1923. When he died in 1930, he bequeathed it to his widow Hedwig Lewenstein-Weijermann. At the time of the auction, the artwork had passed into the possession of Hedwig's two children, Robert and Wilhelmine. How and under what circumstances the painting entered the auction, however, has remained unclear. It is likely that the work was a forced sell since Netherlands had been occupied by the Nazis just a few months earlier in May 1940.

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For this reason, the Lewenstein heirs, the Stedelijk Museum and the City of Amsterdam turned to the Dutch Restitution Committee in 2013 to investigate the case more closely. The committee finally published the result of its investigations in 2018: the painting could remain in the museum, since no misconduct on the part of the museum can be proven, even if a connection with the Nazis could not be completely ruled out. In addition, the interest of the museum and the public was considered more important than that of the former owners.

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The heirs then went to court, which upheld the committee's decision in December 2020. That was not the end of the story, however, as the city of Amsterdam itself decided to return Kandinsky's Painting with Houses to the heirs of the former owners in order to do justice to the victims of World War II.

Wassily Kandinsky, Colorful Life, 1907, tempera / canvas, 130 x 162.5 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Image in the public domain
Wassily Kandinsky, Colorful Life, 1907, tempera / canvas, 130 x 162.5 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. Image in the public domain

An almost identical case of restitution has existed since 2015 at the Lenbachhaus in Munich. The Kandinsky painting Colorful Life from 1907, which has been exhibited there since 1972 , was also in the possession of the Lewensteins before it was auctioned off in 1940 in the same sale as Painting with Houses. The decision is still pending here, but the events in Amsterdam may set a new precedent. The case is currently being examined by the Limbach Commission.

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