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Inheritance dispute could rob Dutch museums of masterpieces

October 9, 1997

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ An inheritance dispute could leave white space where masterpieces now hang on the walls of leading Dutch art museums, including Amsterdam’s famed Rijksmuseum.

Nearly a half-century after art dealer Jacques Goudstikker’s collection fell into Nazi hands, his heirs are asking the museums to pay for more than 90 works _ or give them back.

The Netherlands Collection Management Institute, which sorts out legal issues in the Dutch art world, has not yet decided whether Goudstikker’s heirs have a case.

But 17 of Netherlands’ most prominent museums are already lamenting the possible loss of the 16th- and 17th-century works by Dutch masters like Jan Steen.

``Naturally, it’s frightfully unfortunate if we have to go without such great works. But justice must prevail,″ said Guido Jansen, curator of the Rijksmuseum, which has seven of the paintings.

Mostly oils, they include Steen’s famous ``The Sacrifice of Iphigenia,″ portraits by Nicolaes Maes and a river landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael. Together, they are worth tens of millions of dollars.

Goudstikker, who ran a prominent art dealership in Amsterdam, was killed by Nazis on May 16, 1940, while trying to flee the occupied Netherlands.

At the time, his collection numbered more than 1,200 paintings, drawings and sculptures. The works wound up Nazi hands.

After World War II, the Dutch government recovered many of them and lent them to museums, never telling Goudstikker’s widow, Desiree, who had remarried and settled in New York.

She eventually learned of the recovery and launched a legal battle to get the artworks back. In 1952, tired of trying, she settled with the government and relinquished her claims.

Now her family is asking for the paintings back, or for cash equal to their value, contending that the Dutch government was less than honest in its dealings with Mrs. Goudstikker and may have knowingly withheld information from her.

Among the other prominent museums that have masterpieces once owned by Goudstikker are the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, which has six; the Bonnefanten Museum in the southern city of Maastricht, which has five; and the Catharinagasthuis in the cheese-making city of Gouda, which has four.

The rest of the paintings are on display or in storage at art museums in The Hague, Utrecht, Rotterdam and other major Dutch cities, and some decorate Dutch government offices and overseas embassies. At least one hangs in the Dutch capital’s Rembrandt House.

If the paintings have to be returned, ``it will have sweeping consequences for our collection,″ said Ton Quik, curator of the Limburg Museum in the southern Netherlands.

The Culture Ministry frequently buys paintings to enrich Dutch museums, but its budget is no match for the price tags likely to hang on pieces in the Goudstikker collection.

``We really don’t know whether this claim has a chance,″ ministry spokesman Michael van Wissen van Veen said. ``We’re just waiting now.″

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