Lawyer's €12 million fee in Nazi-looted art case is too high, Dutch court rules

International Herald Tribune 16 February 2007

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP): A lawyer's fee of €12 million (US$15.7 million) for negotiating the return of art stolen by the Nazis was too high, a court ruled Friday.

Lawyer Roelof van Holthe tot Echten submitted the multimillion-dollar bill for arranging the return of hundreds of works that had belonged to a Jewish art dealer who fled the Netherlands at the start of World War II.

The heirs of Jacques Goudstikker contested the bill, so the lawyer sought to block the return of 198 works being held by the Dutch government until he was paid 20 percent of the estimated value.

Goudstikker's daughter-in-law Marei von Saher and his granddaughters Charlene and Chantal von Saher, who live in Connecticut, refused, offering to pay an hourly rate instead.

The Hague District Court sided in part with the descendants, allowing them to ship the works to the United States.

It awarded Van Holthe tot Echten at least €1.9 million (US$2.5 million), or €325 (US$425) per hour, but suggested that amount should be quadrupled to €7.6 million (US$10 million) to reflect the risk the lawyer took in working on the case for so long with uncertain prospects for payment.

"A multiplication factor of four is not unreasonable, under the given circumstances," the court said in its written ruling. It left it up to both sides to negotiate the exact amount.

The ruling opens the question of what the Goudstikker heirs will be left with in the end. Evidence cited in the ruling suggested another Dutch lawyer might seek up to 20 percent of the value of the collection, U.S. lawyers another 10 percent, and a U.S. art historian who helped research the case yet another 10 percent.

Christie's estimated the collection, which includes masterpieces by Jan Steen and Salomon van Ruysdael, is worth from US$79 million-US$110 million (€56 million-€84 million).

The Von Saher's new lawyer, Rob Polak, said the amount cited in Friday's ruling was "higher than we believe is reasonable, but the judge had to make an estimate."

He said he was confident the bill would be reduced further in the next phase of proceedings.

Goudstikker, who in the 1930s was the Netherlands' biggest art dealer, fled at the start of the war with his wife and young son, leaving behind an estimated 1,300 artworks.

He died after falling through a trap door on an outbound ship.

After the Nazis invaded, around 800 pieces of artwork were seized by Hitler's right-hand man, Hermann Goering. About 300 of them, mostly by Dutch artists, were returned to the government after the war.

A few were auctioned, but 267 works worth tens of millions of dollars (euros) remained in art museums around the Netherlands.

Goudstikker's daughter-in-law began seeking the recovery of the Dutch works in 1996, but the courts upheld a 1952 settlement with Goudstikker's widow, Desiree. She had accepted a bad deal rather than nothing, under protest and not knowing the extent of the Dutch government's holdings.

But after an international debate began, in the late 1990s, on compensating Jews for stolen Holocaust-era assets, an independent commission recommended that the Dutch government return the works.

Rudi Ekkart, chairman of the commission, said in 2003 that the case "screamed to heaven."

"Those who were robbed but survived the war were then cowed by bureaucrats."

On Friday, he told Dutch NOS television he was saddened by the fight over lawyers' fees.

"It gives the impression ... the whole policy of returning works is based on the claims by people that only see dollar signs in their eyes," he said.

Hundreds of other works Goering took, including pieces by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Goya, Rubens, Brueghel, Titian and Tintoretto, remain lost.

A handful of others were returned to the family by buyers after their origin became known, including the Israel Museum, Germany's Lower Saxony State Museum and one owned by a private American collector.
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