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When the Top of the Class calls it quits

On recent restrictions in Dutch restitution practice


Gert-Jan van den Bergh

In April 2013, over eight years after the landmark decision of the Dutch Restitution Committee in the matter of Goudstikker which advised the Dutch ministry of culture to return more than 200 works of art to the descendants of a famous Jewish art dealer, the heirs of the German-Jewish refugee Richard Semmel awaited with confidence the return of Bernardo Strozzi’s masterpiece Christ and the Samaritan Woman. No one disputed that the work – now hanging in a provincial museum in The Netherlands – was looted by the Nazis. One can imagine their dismay when the Committee with ease confirmed the work was looted whilst on the same token restitution was refused given that the heirs were not blood relatives of Semmel, the painting was deemed vital for the museum collection and finally because of a mere passing of time. The Dutch restitution practice hasn’t been perfect, to be sure, but before the dramatic change in the law introducing the so called ‘balance of interest-test’, the country gave at least an intimation of what a straightforward and truthful execution of the Washington Principles sounds like. In this article the point is made that with the revitalization of the post-war attitudes towards creating effective legal barriers in order to keep former owners and their heirs from reclaiming their possessions the Dutch have lost their role as a leader in the international restitution practice.

Gert-Jan van den Bergh 1

1 * Gert-Jan van den Bergh, lawyer in Amsterdam. Martha Visser, Support Lawyer at Bergh Stoop & Sanders, contributed writing and reporting.


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