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Dutch Family Recalls Ordeal Reclaiming Art Collection Stolen by Nazis - 2003-05-13

More than 90 works of art, from paintings by Old Masters to ceramics and pieces of furniture, were sold this week in Amsterdam. All the works belonged to one Dutch family, the Gutmann's, and were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. But it was many years after the war before the Gutmann family was able to regain possession of the works. Lauren Comiteau spoke with Lili Gutmann about her family's struggle to reclaim the artwork, much of which never left Holland.

As she walks through the Christie's auction house in Amsterdam, Lili Gutmann shows a visitor the objects that once decorated her family's home in Heemstede, a wealthy village outside Amsterdam. She stops before a late 18th century Italian settee.

"Well, you have heard the story of this... it is rather amusing, this story. When we first came last year to see all these things which had been given back to us, this piece, which was on the list, was missing," she said.

Up until last year, she says, nobody could find this piece. Suddenly, the Dutch located it in a very public place.

"It was standing in the Castle Het Loo, one of the Dutch Royal palaces," explained Lili Gutmann. "You can take the photo from the catalogue and there you see it standing. And this morning, I wanted to go and sit there and they said no do not sit on it because the leg is not in very good condition. I said, 'But if Queens Whilemina and Queen Julianna sat there, maybe I can sit, too.' They said it is not safe."

All these year later, Lili Gutmann can laugh. But the story of how the family furniture ended up in a Dutch palace museum is anything but funny, or even unique.

During World War II, Lili's father was forced to sell some of the family's collection to the Nazis; other pieces were simply taken. Both of her parents were later killed in concentration camps. After the war, Lili and her brother, Bernard, returned to their house. It was empty. They registered their losses with the Dutch government, which had the job of returning all looted art found by allied forces at the end of the war.

It took three Dutch commissions and about 50 more years of legal battles and bureaucratic wrangling before the family learned it was getting back more than 200 items, all held by the Dutch government since 1945.

"We have struggled for so long and the story is like a story without end," said Lili Gutmann. "It never ends. And I do not think it has ended yet."

Right after the war, the Dutch government refused to return anything the Gutmann's sold to the Nazis, saying the sales were voluntary. But a 1952 court case sided with the Gutmann's, recognizing the sales were forced. The Gutmann's were then told they had to buy back their own property from the Dutch, since their father received money for it. In fact, he never did.

While Lili and her brother, Bernard, got back some items, they could not afford the rest. After her brother died in 1994, his sons took up the fight.

Bernard's son, Nick Goodman, applauds a recent change in Dutch policy that allows for restitution, as well as the government's admission that its past policies were callous, cold and unjust. But it was only last year that the Gutmanns learned they would be getting back their property, and Nick Goodman says his aunt Lili was horrified when she learned that the Dutch had her family's collections on display in their most prominent museums all along.

"But with silver pieces, which are completely unique and enormously famous, the Rijks museum knew that they belonged to Gutmann family and yet they have had them since after the war," he said. "We are talking nearly 60 years, 50 years, more. They have had them on display in the Rijks museum and never said anything to us, to the family."

Mr. Goodman says one of the family's silver pieces was even listed as a highlight in the museum's catalogue. The auction, he says, will provide a small bit of closure. But both he and his aunt say there will never be justice.

"No, that could never be done," said Lili Gutmann. "That is something that nothing on earth could ever, how should I say, make things right. In a way one feels maybe they think that if there is something above us, my parents may be watching, yes, it is a good thing for the children, but the things that were done to them, no, no, no."

Nick Goodman says you can not get the people back, but getting the possessions means a lot. The Gutmann's made more than 950,000 euros, more than $1 million, from the sale of theirs. They plan to divide the proceeds among the family.

As for the settee, Christie's experts were hoping the Palace museum would bid for it, finally becoming the rightful owner of the piece it displayed for years. But in the end, it did not, so the piece is headed back to Italy, where it originally came from, to become part of a different family's private collection. It fetched more than $15,000 on the open market.