First the Nazis robbed us - then the Dutch

Katherine Butler reports on a Jewish family's struggle to recover art treasures looted by Goering during the war
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The Independent Online
ON THE banks of the River Maas, a mile or so from the medieval heart of Maastricht, the Bonnefanten Museum looks as if it dropped out of the sky. Plateglass and chrome roof the space-age art palace, and when the clouds clear, the gilded frames of the 16th-century Italian paintings inside glint in the sunlight. This is one of the jewels of Holland's world- famous art heritage, but the Bonnefanten now faces the loss of up to a third of its collection to an American ice-skating teacher and her daughters.

In the final act of a drama which began with Hermann Goering and his drive to loot Europe of art reflecting the glory of the Aryan heritage, the Von Sahers from Greenwich, Connecticut, are suing the Dutch state for the return of hundreds of paintings the family once owned.

An Amsterdam court cleared the way last week for the legal battle to begin. The family says it was robbed twice, first by the Nazis and then by the Dutch state. Of more than 1,000 paintings, sculptures and other art treasures collected by the pre-war art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, his grandchildren retain just one.

More than 50 years after the Second World War the Netherlands, so proud of its morally sound wartime record, is about to be hauled through the courts, accused of profiteering from the crimes of the Nazis. Not only did it fill its own museums with art works looted from a private collection, say the Von Sahers, it established legal obstacles designed to "break" Holocaust survivors' efforts to recover their valuables.

Museum administrators have been ordered to draw up inventories detailing the provenance of everything they own. The fear is that the "wrong" result could open the floodgates, allowing the children of many Jews to challenge "settlements" they may have been railroaded into after the war. Lawyers for the Von Saher family believe the state controls 3,400 art treasures whose ownership could be challenged.

Many Dutch people have been shocked by the government's refusal to negotiate with the Goudstikker heirs. It appears to fly in the face of its commitment at the Nazi gold conference in London last December to rectify any wartime injustices which came to light. But until recently nobody imagined that a widow living in a quiet American suburb would surface to claim restitution of such an important part of the Dutch national art collection.

Marei von Saher is 52. Her Dutch-born husband Edo, the only son of Jacques Goudstikker, rarely spoke about his father's Amsterdam business. He died a few years ago, leaving Marei with two daughters, one of whom, Charlene, is a professional ice skater like her mother.

Marei and her daughters might have remained ignorant of their potential inheritance, estimated to be worth up to pounds 50m, had they not been contacted by a Dutch journalist, Pieter den Hollander, last September.

Jacques Goudstikker was one of the most prominent art dealers in pre- war Europe. His company, dealing mainly in the Dutch and Flemish masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens and Jan Steen, made him a millionaire, but he also used his wealth to collect, restore and exhibit early Italian religious art, such as Bellini's Madonna and Child. His fortune included Nijenrode castle near Amsterdam, where he mounted public exhibitions as well as holding glamorous parties and cultural evenings.

Desiree von Halban Kurz, a young Viennese soprano sang there one evening in June 1937. Desi, as she was known, came from a wealthy, cultured background. Within months she and Jacques Goudstikker were married and had became the golden couple of Amsterdam society.

Everything changed in 1940, when the Netherlands fell to the Nazis. The horrors of the death camps were about to be unleashed on almost 100,000 Dutch Jews. Within days Jacques, Desi and their little son Edouard (Edo) fled the country, leaving senior non-Jewish employees temporarily in charge of the business. Jacques died en route to Canada and the grief- stricken Desi had to make her own way to the US with her son. There she had an inventory drawn up of the 1,300 or so works in the Goudstikker collection.

Within weeks of the invasion almost 800 paintings had fallen into the hands of Goering, who had targeted the Goudstikker collection both for himself and to fill the Fuhrer museum in Linz. His intermediary was the German banker Alois Miedl, who negotiated a knock-down sale price for most of the art works.Goering admitted at the Nuremberg trials that he got hold of the Goudstikker collection for less than a third of its market price, though he apparently kept his bargain to protect Jacques's mother, Emmy, who remained in Amsterdam, escaping the fate of of four-fifths of Dutch Jews.

Desi returned to Holland after the liberation, and a seven-year wrangle with the restitution authority followed. Many paintings never came back from Germany - a number of Rembrandts, for example, were thought to have been sold on by Nazi dealers - but more than 300 were eventually recovered. Most of these, such as Jan Steen's Iphigenia or Lippi's Adoration, are hanging in 16 different Dutch museums. Some were allegedly auctioned off by the state.

Desi Goudstikker, by then remarried, reluctantly agreed to a settlement in 1952 under which she renounced ownership of works of art purchased by Goering or Miedl, because she would have had to buy them back. Aad Nuis, the Dutch arts minister, insists she could have appealed, but opted not to. The suggestion in government circles is that the family was influenced by the fact that many of the paintings were in bad condition.

But critics of the government believe Desi was either badly advised or brought to her knees by the wrangling. Dick Schonis, the Amsterdam lawyer representing Jacques and Desi's granddaughters, is confident that the courts will rule against the state. "I can fully understand why the government is nervous," he said. "If you reopen this decision, then maybe many other cases will have to be revisited. But in the end the government took possession of a lot of priceless paintings, and the family ended up with nothing."