As the Nazis swept across Europe in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, precious art began to vanish from the homes of Jewish families and European museums. Many Jewish collectors fled, leaving behind their treasures. Others fell victim to the horrific genocide orchestrated by Hitler's forces. Museums and other private collections were pillaged by occupiers. After the war, many works seemed lost forever. However, thanks to the devoted work of art historians, activists, and surviving family members, many works have been returned to their rightful owners. This includes the recent return of a Dutch Golden Age work by the painter Caspar Netscher to Mrs. Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, the 101-year-old daughter of its former owner.
Hitler used his forces' looting of private homes to amass valuable treasures for sale, with the eventual plan to create a museum marshaling great art to glorify his regime. Many thousands of paintings, books, and other precious works were seized. In 1943, the Allied forces formed the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) to protect historical objects. After the war, their primary duty became the detection and return of stolen art. Art historians have since kept up the quest to return these works.
One painting in particular has had a long journey. In 1940, Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder—the director of a children's hospital and avid art collector—hid 14 of his paintings in the vaults of the Amsterdam Bank in Arnhem in an effort to keep them from the invaders. Years later in 1945, Nazi forces evacuating Arnhem raided the bank and seized the Portrait of Steven Wolters, a Dutch Golden Age work by painter Caspar Netscher (1639–1684). The 1683 work depicted the merchant Steven Wolters. It had once hung in the Smidt van Gelder dining room, but now it was gone.
After the war, the Dutch government was able to return eight of the looted paintings to Smidt van Gelder. However, the Portrait of Steven Wolters remained missing for decades. Smidt van Gelder's daughter, Bischoff van Heemskerck, kept looking for the special piece. “We all missed this painting very much because it was so much part of our daily life,” she said in a statement. “It is a beautiful painting, beautifully painted, with its subtle combination of colors on the wonderful coat and the expression on the face of the sitter which shows him to be a generous man, an impressive man.”
Meanwhile the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE) searched too. They tracked the painting to a gallery in the 1950s, an auction in 1969, and a private collection in 1971. Through negotiations with the collector, the painting was at last returned to Bischoff van Heemskerck in 2021, as her father had died in 1969. She decided to sell the painting for the benefit of her family, as she considers it a treasure of the family together. It sold through Sotheby's for £44,100 (about $52,000 at the time). The family also recently sold another returned work, Jacob Ochtervelt’s The Oyster Meal, for $2.4 million.
Since 1999, the CLAE has helped return over 3,500 works looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners. At the time, upwards of 100,000 works were estimated to still be “lost” somewhere. Likely some are destroyed, others in museums, and still more in private collections. As recently as 2012, over a thousand works were found in the private collection of the son of a Nazi art dealer. Many are thought to be looted. The process of returning these works to Jewish families and others such as museums who lost art to the Nazis is still an ongoing process, one small step towards bringing cultural heritage home.
A Dutch Old Master work looted by the Nazis was returned to Mrs. Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, the 101-year-old daughter of its former owner.
Painter Caspar Netscher (1639–1684) painted the 1683 work depicted the merchant Steven Wolters.
h/t: [Smithsonian Magazine]