Art looted by Nazis in Belgium still in Dutch museums, government buildings

NL Times 22 June 2023

Dutch government buildings and museums display Nazi-looted artworks that actually belong in Belgium, not the Netherlands, according to years of research by Belgian journalist Geert Sels, the culture editor at De Standaard. A “system error” in the interpretation of the Declaration of London resulted in artworks from Belgium not returning to the country after the Second World War, NRC reports.

In the Declaration of London, the Allied governments-in-exile agreed that all transactions with the Nazi occupier regarding art and property were regarded as “non-existent.” Looted or purchased objects had to return to the country where they came from after the war. 

Due to the amount of artwork looted by the Nazis, found in 1,400 depots after the liberation, the Allies set up central collection points throughout Germany from which the art was returned. To keep the flow manageable, the Allies agreed to send all works of art back to the country from which they had entered Nazi Germany.

According to Sels, that’s where Belgium’s problem came in. In his research, Sels established that Belgium held a unique position in the art flow to Germany. Many artworks from Belgium went to Nazi Germany via the Netherlands and France, and not directly, Sels found in various archive documents.

For example, art went from Belgium to the Parisian museum of Jeu de Paume. From there, a selection of the best work was sent to Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum in Linz. Hundreds of works traveled from Belgium to the Netherlands and then to Nazi Germany. And after the liberation, the artworks involved were sent back to France or the Netherlands, not to Belgium.

After the war, the Netherlands received some 1,500 works of art back based on the Declaration of London, of which their original owner is still unknown. Some of these artworks have been loaned to Dutch museums, some are in storage, and some are exhibited in government buildings. 

According to Sels, these artworks include several that should actually be in Belgium. Such as the paintings The Entombment by Flemish artist Colijn Coter and The Flight to Egypt by Lucas Gassel, currently hanging in the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht. “They went via an art dealer from Brussels to the Netherlands to Nazi Germany and got stuck in the Netherlands after the war,” Sels said.

“Now I’m going to make it really fun,” Sels told NRC. “There is even a Van Gogh in the Netherlands that belongs in Belgium.” In the archive of the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, now called BOZAR, Sels found correspondence from a director-general responsible for auctions who regularly sold art under the table. That happened to the painting The Brabant Farmer by Vincent Van Gogh. During the war, the painting went from Brussels to Amsterdam to Stuttgart. After, it got returned to the Netherlands and now hangs in the Noordbrabants Museum.
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