The Dutch government is reviewing its own state-held art collection to look for works stolen by Nazis that can be returned.
The Restitutions Committee, a government-backed program created to organize the return of stolen artwork to its proper heirs in the Netherlands, was created in 2001, and has reviewed dozens of state- and museum-owned artworks since its creation.
But recently, the Committee has pushed to widen the definition of looted art.
“There is no free will if a family had to sell something to be able to flee to a safe country,” spokesperson Dolf Muller said. Either for economic urgency, or because fleeing families were forbidden from taking any art the Nazi authorities deemed to be ‘of interest’ and could sell it, or leave it behind, as has been proven in several recent repatriation cases.
The Restitutions Committee and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands will work together to review over 3500 artworks in the state-owned collection of the Dutch government, including 1700 paintings.
“The investigation isn’t easy,” said senior adviser Perry Schrier. He compared it to criminal investigations of 80-year-old cold cases, which in some cases it literally is.
For instance, a painting of fishing boats by Hendrik Willem Mesdag has hung in the Dutch Parliament for decades. Research after WWII was unable to trace its ownership; it was sold at auction in The Hague by an unknown seller In 1941, under Nazi occupation. New conservation technology has at last identified that auction house as Villa Erica, a major step closer to learning who sold the work, and from there why.
There is no telling how much the Nazis stole during their occupation of much of Europe, but it is estimated to be as much as one-fifth of all art in Europe at the time. There was the Kunstschutz, a military unit specifically tasked with plundering cultural items far and wide. Most have been returned, but hundreds of thousands of objects are still missing.
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