Hidden stories about works from the Bonnefanten’s collection of old masters and their peregrinations – before, during and after World War II. A presentation of art that was coveted by the Nazis.

Interesting, exciting and sometimes tragic stories are told in this exhibition. They are hidden behind the almost twenty selected works that are on display. The presentation was preceded by research into a specific part of the Bonnefanten’s collection of old masters: the Netherlands Art Property (NK) collection. These works are on long-term loan to the Bonnefanten from the Dutch state. The NK collection comprises artworks that were returned to the Netherlands (repatriated) after World War II; works that were stolen, sold, or sold under duress in the Netherlands by prominent Nazis or on their order.

Hidden stories

Besides their art-historical story, the works exhibited have lots more interesting facts to tell about the looting, voluntary sale or sale under duress during the period around World War II. They are hidden stories, which can only be unravelled by carrying out thorough provenance research. They tell of the pre-war owners (including the Dutch art collectors Lanz and Goudstikker and the Rothschild family in Vienna), the art trade in the period of World War II and the time spent by the works in Nazi Germany as a result of the collecting passion of Hitler and Göring, for example. After the war, the stories often continue with many years of searching for the rightful owners. That was a difficult task, which led in several cases to the restitution of the art, but sometimes dragged on for years and often involved a legal battle.

Konrad von Friesach, workshop, Mercy Seat, circa 1440 – 1460. Bonnefanten, NK collection, on loan from the Cultural Heritage Agency. Photo: Peter Cox.

Topical theme

Finding our whether an artwork was stolen or sold under duress has never been so relevant in the Netherlands. In recent years, Dutch museums and the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE) have intensified their research into their collections. In the presentation Art adrift, the story of this restitution process is told through the artworks, in three periods: 1900 - 1945, 1945 - 1997 and 1997 – the present.

From the moment the allies repatriated the works from Germany to the Netherlands, the Dutch state tried to return them to their rightful owners through a restitution procedure. Works that were not claimed after the liberation were auctioned by the Dutch state or set aside for museums and other public buildings. This collection was called the Netherlands Art Property, or the NK collection. The Bonnefanten has 132 works on long-term loan from the NK collection.

Provenance research into the NK collection has received a new impulse since 2022. The period 1933-1940 is now also included, and the provenance researchers of the RCE are once again actively looking for rightful owners. The Bonnefanten, too, is responsible for doing provenance research into its own collection. In the case of new acquisitions whose provenance is unknown between 1930 and 1950, a provenance research protocol is carried out, whereby various databases are consulted. The majority of these databases are accessible to the public. Art adrift is therefore also an invitation to everyone who wishes to carry out provenance research into their art objects.

Header: Paintings on racks and rolled up, Exhibition of repatriated works by the Netherlands Art Property Foundation, 1950. Source Rijksmuseum.


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