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Picture Perfect: How A Postcard Solved A WWII Art Mystery

November 16, 2022
View of Murnau with Church by Wassily Kandinsky, recently returned to the heirs of its original owner who was killed in the Holocaust

View of Murnau with Church by Wassily Kandinsky

The Restitutions Commission of the Netherlands made a surprising decision recently to return an abstract masterwork stolen by the Nazis to the descendants of its Jewish owner. View of Murnau with Church by Wassily Kandinsky was created in 1910 and previously owned by Johanna Margarethe Stern-Lippmann, a Jewish Dutch art collector who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944. Since 1951, the painting has been hanging at the Van Abbemuseum in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. The museum acquired the painting from a Jewish art dealer named Karl Legat, who, in exchange for protection from deportation, helped the Nazis in expropriating art from the Netherlands.

The committee decided in 2018 that the Kandinsky painting should remain in the museum due to the lack of evidence that the Stern-Lippmann family owned it. This is surprising since their newest ruling returning the Kandinsky to the family cites evidence that was likely well known beforehand. Most notably, the provenance previously accepted by the committee shows that Legat had bought the painting from the artist Arthur Kaufmann. However, the price paid indicates that Legat acquired it after the war when the Kaufmann family fled from the Netherlands before the German occupation. So clearly, the discrepancies in that information should have been a red flag. But the Stern-Lippmann family recently obtained some new evidence from a small, seemingly insignificant source: a simple postcard featuring the image of the Kandinsky work. The letter, dated 1966, was written by the wife of one of the art dealers involved in the Nazis’ theft of Dutch art. It specifically mentions View of Murnau with Church as “our Kandinsky”. The committee interpreted this as an admission that she and her husband were involved in the expropriation of this specific painting during the war. It seems this was enough to cause the committee members to reverse course.

View of Murnau with Church is only the most recent work of art to be returned to the original owners’ heirs following the Second World War. This is especially significant since just last year, the Dutch government began to reevaluate their restitution laws after recommendations from a governmental committee.