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Kandinsky painting that was auctioned during WWII is returned to Jewish heirs

A prized painting by Russian master Wassily Kandinsky that was sold under duress during World War II has been returned to the descendants of its former Jewish owners.

The oil painting, Bild mit Häusern (Painting with Houses), was just one of a treasured art collection inherited by Robert Lewenstein and his wife Irma Klein, which, at one point, also included works by Van Gogh, Renoir and Rembrandt. But the pair was forced to auction off the Kandinsky painting in October 1940 as they fled the Nazis five months after they invaded the Netherlands.

Records show the director of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum bought the Kandinsky for a fraction of its value at the time. Het Parool reports: "He paid 160 guilders for it – a pittance of the original value at the time, 2000 to 3000 guilders."

The 1909 painting of a figure in a colorful, abstracted landscape, now has an estimated value of more than $20 million.

Its transfer to Lewenstein's heirs on Monday puts an end to a nine-year dispute.

"As a city, we bear a great responsibility for dealing with the indescribable suffering and injustice inflicted on the Jewish population in the Second World War," Amsterdam Deputy Mayor Touria Meliani said in a statement.

"To the extent that anything can be restored, we as a society have a moral duty to act accordingly. This certainly applies to the many works of art that were in the possession of Jewish citizens and were looted by Nazis or were otherwise lost to the owners," Meliani added.

An initial attempt to regain the multi-million dollar work of art was denied by the Dutch Restitutions Committee, in 2018, following a five-year investigation. The committee rules in cases of ownership of artifacts looted during Nazi occupation

An appeal of the decision in 2020 also failed. But a year later, a second committee, formed by the Dutch government ruled to reassess the case. That led to renewed talks between the Lewenstein heirs and the municipality.

"The municipality and the heirs agree that the restitution does justice to the principle of returning works of art that were involuntarily removed from possession during the Second World War due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime to heirs of the then owners where possible," the museum said on Monday.

James Palmer of the Mondex Corporation, which helps with restitution negotiations, added, "Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the journey of the Lewenstein family to achieve the justice, dignity and respect that they have been rightfully seeking for so many years."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.