18 June 2011

Your forced sale is not my forced sale—denial of restitution in Ghent, Belgium

Ghent
Source: Wikipedia
Ghent is a proud historical Flemish city in Belgium. It touts as one of its outstanding accomplishments to be the 7th most desirable city in the world according to “Lonely Planet.” It is a city where people can still meet people, according to Lieven Decaluwe, vice president of the “Collège des échevins” of the city of Ghent/ Gand and the échevin responsible for questions of culture, tourism and festivities. The “Collège des échevins” is the equivalent of a city council run by the city mayor [bourgmestre]. Each échevin is responsible for a particular sector of activity.

This proud city also touts an impressive museum of fine arts, the “Musée des Beaux-arts de Gand.” In it, one can find everything from Old Masters to modernists, including Expressionist painters like Oskar Kokoschka. It so happens that one painting by Kokoschka, “Portrait de Ludwig Adler,” acquired by the Museum in 1988 (or 1989 depending on which article you read) has been the subject of a claim for restitution by the heirs of the late German banker, Viktor von Klemperer, since early 2009, when the von Klemperer family’s attorney, Sabine Rudolph, notified the city council of Gand that the painting had been the subject of a forced sale in 1937 or 1938 in Nazi Germany and should be returned to its rightful owners. According to Sabine Rudolph, all transactions during that period were considered to be forced sales. She also declared that German law assumes that Jews were forced to sell their belongings during the Nazi era.

The “Collège des échevins de Gand” appointed a commission to investigate the von Klemperer claim. The head of the commission was the former chairperson of the « Commission d’étude et de la Commission de dédommagement de la communauté juive de Belgique », the main commission established by the Belgian government in 1997-1999 to assess the damage done to Jews living in Belgium during the German occupation and to articulate the foundations of a compensation law that was eventually passed in 2002. Interestingly enough, the Commission excluded thefts, misappropriations, and forced sales of cultural assets, from its mandate, arguing, strangely enough, that those assets had been transferred directly to Germany and should therefore not be taken into account.

One can therefore conclude that the former chairperson of the « Commission d’étude et de la Commission de dédommagement de la communauté juive de Belgique » was not competent to oversee such an inquiry and therefore the entire exercise conducted by the municipality of Ghent has been nothing short of a historical farce dressed up as an objective inquiry into a historical misdeed that occurred in another country whose policies wrecked Belgium and its Jewish population for close to five long years.

Predictably enough, the “Collège des Echevins de Gand”, speaking on behalf of the “Musée des beaux-arts de Gand," denied restitution to the heirs of the late German banker, Viktor von Klemperer, on the grounds that his painting by Oskar Kokoschka, “Portrait de Ludwig Adler,” had not been the subject of a forced sale in Nazi Germany at some point between 1937 and 1938, shortly before he fled to Africa with his family.

The reasons that justify such an inane ruling rested partly on an allegation that the late Viktor von Klemperer was interested in selling the work as early as 1937, and that his wife might not even have liked the painting in the first place. This is the first time that personal taste has been invoked as a factor in the assessment of a claim for restitution.

It is a sad day both for the Jews of Belgium, for the Belgian government (which may or may not exist), and for the international community, to see such provincialism and arrogance prevail in a petition for historical justice associated with acts of genocide and plunder.

The commission investigating the forced sale was incompetent and did not have the requisite skills and background to understand the scope, breadth, and complexity of the event that forced von Klemperer to shed his cultural assets in Nazi Germany.

Perhaps the Belgian authorities should ask themselves why they have one of the worst track records in Europe when it comes to the restitution of art stolen during the German occupation with the complicity and collaboration of its own citizens.