The story of returning art stolen by the Nazis is a never-ending one, and the latest chapter involves a 101-year-old woman who was recently reunited with a painting taken almost 80 years ago.
The woman treasured the beautiful work for around six months, but has decided to auction it in order to help her now-considerable flock of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.
Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck was just a teenager when the SS came to her door; they were looking for her father. She had to let them in, she said, she was so scared.
Her father, Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder, was the director of the children’s hospital in the city of Arnhem, and he was hunted by the SS for refusing to collaborate with the invading Germans. Going into hiding, he took a painting off the family wall—Portrait of Steven Wolters by Dutch master Caspar Netscher, and stored it in Arnhem branch of the Bank of Amsterdam in 1940.
There he thought the painting dated to 1683 would be safe, but Nazis eventually broke in and looted the vaults. Then war proper broke out on the continent, and the painting was lost to history.
Detective work by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe established it had made a temporary appearance at an art gallery in Düsseldorf in the mid 1950s. Its next surfacing was in Amsterdam in 1969, and in Germany once again in 1971, where it was bought by a private collector.
Negotiators reached out to the last buyer, and secured its return to van Heemskerck, who declared, “I am amazed,” upon seeing it.
“I had five brothers and sisters,” van Heemskerck told The Guardian, “there are 20 offspring and they are very sweet, so I never had the feeling that it was mine. It’s from the family.”
Placed now at Sotheby’s auction house in London, it’s listed at $37,000 – $62,000 (£30,000 – £50,000), and will go up for auction on July 6th.
Bischoff van Heemskerck admitted to being a little bit emotional, as she inevitably connected the painting with wartime memories. She joined the Dutch resistance as a courier.
“You would have done too, I’m sure,” she told the reporter covering the story. “We were hoping that we would win the war and we did everything to help.”