Semmel

NK2693 (Photo: RCE)

Recommendation regarding Semmel

Recommendation number: 
1.75
Type: 
NK collection
Publishing date: 
1 July 2009
Period loss of possession: 
1933-1940
Private owner/art dealer: 
Private individual
Location of loss: 
The Netherlands

In a letter dated 18 April 2007, the Minister for Education, Culture and Science (hereafter referred to as: ‘OCW’) requested the Restitutions Committee (hereafter referred to as: ‘the Committee’) to issue a recommendation regarding the application by XX of YY (hereafter referred to as: ‘the applicant’) of 12 March 2007 for the restitution of the painting Portrait of a man by T. de Keyser. Following its recuperation to the Netherlands after the Second World War, the painting became part of the national collection and is registered under inventory number NK 2693. According to the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, the claimed work is currently housed in MuseumgoudA in Gouda.

THE PROCEDURE

The application for restitution originally concerned three works, NK 2693, NK 2412 and NK 1636. However, in a letter dated 18 April 2007, the Minister informed the applicant that only the application concerning NK 2693 could be submitted to the Committee for a recommendation, since the other two works had been returned to the Goudstikker heirs on 6 February 2006. On the basis of the Minister’s request for a recommendation, the Committee instigated a fact-finding investigation, the results of which were included in a draft investigatory report dated 2 June 2008. This report was sent to both the Minister and the applicant on 12 June 2008 with a request for comments and additional information, the latter responding in writing on 24 July 2008. In a letter dated 26 August 2008, the Committee asked the applicant to provide further information regarding the identification of the claimed work as being formerly owned by her family and about the persecution of Semmel in 1933. On 19 December 2008, the Committee received a document file from the applicant with the relevant additional documentation. This information was incorporated into the draft investigatory report, which was subsequently adopted on 1 July 2009. For the facts of the case, the Committee refers to this report. During the procedure, the applicant was represented by the Berlin-based lawyer O.S. Ossmann. The painting NK 2693 was also part of an application for restitution concerning the art dealership Firma D. Katz of Dieren (RC 1.90-A). The Committee was obliged to defer its recommendation in the present case until the investigation of NK 2693 was also completed in the other case. The applicant was informed about this in the draft investigatory report and in a letter dated 26 August 2008. After concluding its investigation, the Committee rejected the claim to NK 2693 regarding the art dealership Firma D. Katz. The Committee refers to the text of the recommendation in RC 1.90-A for its decision in that case.

CONSIDERATIONS

  1. The applicant requests the restitution of the painting Portrait of a man by T. de Keyser (NK 2693) and claims to be the heir of her mother G.G.-E., who was the sole heir of the Jewish businessman Richard Semmel (hereafter referred to as: ‘Semmel’). In this context, the Committee has taken cognisance of several legal inheritance documents, which have given the Committee no reason to doubt the applicant’s status. According to the applicant, Semmel lost possession of the painting in question involuntarily as a result of the Nazi regime in Germany.

  2. The relevant facts are described in the investigatory report dated 1 July 2009. The following is a summary. Semmel was a wealthy German industrialist of Jewish descent. It can be concluded from various post-war statements made by people involved that the applicant’s parents were friends with Semmel. When the Nazis assumed power in Germany in 1933, Semmel resided with his wife in a villa in Berlin. The applicant has stated that, as a child, she regularly visited this villa, which was full of art and antiques, with her parents.

  3. The applicant claims that in 1933 Semmel was already under severe pressure by the Nazis. According to the applicant, this was not only due to his Jewish background but also because of his close involvement in the Deutsche Demokratische Partei [German Democratic Party]. In a post-war statement concerning his persecution by the Nazis, Semmel stated the following:

    ‘Im Anschluß hieran will ich noch sagen, daß der Inhalt der Schreiben von Peck u. Gross nur zum kleine Teil zeigen, was ich durch den Beginn der Hitler-Zeit zu leiden hatte. Ich wurde buchstäblich Tag und Nacht mit Drohungen telefonisch und schriftlich bombardiert, unflätige Zettel kamen täglich in meine Wohnung, es war eine von der Nazipartei organisierte Hetze mit Hilfe der aufgepetschten Angestellten. Obgleich ich immer Demokrat war, hat man behauptet, ich konspiriere mit Severing u. Braun, weil Severing mal in meinem Kontor war und u. um Beisteuerung für einen Jugendbund bat, dessen Name mir entfallen ist. (...) Ich war gerade geschäftlich in St. Gallen, als die Hitler-Katastrophe herinbrach, sofort kam ich zurück, wurde schon auf dem Bahnhof bei der Ankunft gerwarnt, in meine Wohnung zu gehen, so daß ich ein Zimmer in dem Hotel in der Fasanenstr. nahm. Wie richtig diese Maßnahme war, sollte sich bald zeigen, denn im Geschäft spielten sich die Vertrauensleute der Nazis als Herren auf und es kam so weit, daß ich, wie schon gesagt, im letzten Moment nach Holland entkam’.

    The applicant claims that Semmel was forced to flee Germany in 1933 to avoid persecution, forcing him to sell part of his art collection. According to the applicant, the currently claimed work was consequently auctioned in 1933 at Frederik Muller & Cie auction house in Amsterdam. She also indicated that Semmel had to sell his villa in 1934 for a price far below its value. The applicant submitted a report drawn up in 2001 by Prof. F.J. Peine regarding a claim concerning registered property located in Berlin. In this report, Prof. Peine states that Semmel left Germany in April 1933: 

    ‘He finally left Berlin and Germany in April 1933 and fled to Holland. (...) The contents of the Amsterdam People’s Register show that from 27 November 1934 Richard and Clara Semmel were registered as coming to Holland from St. Gallen’.

    Subsequently, Semmel left the Netherlands again, certainly before the German invasion in May 1940, eventually settling in New York.

  4. The applicant has stated that she emigrated to South Africa with her stepfather in 1937, while her mother fled to Cuba in 1939, relocating to New York two years later. According to the applicant, her mother re-established contact with the Semmels in New York, who were living there in destitution. The applicant’s mother is said to have cared for Semmel, who was in very poor health, on a daily basis after his wife’s death in 1945. The applicant stated that her mother was named sole heir in gratitude for looking after him. Semmel died in New York on 2 December 1950.

  5. It can be concluded from the provenance reconstruction carried out by the Origins Unknown Agency (hereafter referred to as: ‘the BHG’) that, in 1928, the painting in question was in the possession of the Amsterdam branch of the Galerie van Diemen & Co art dealers, which had its head office in Berlin. Furthermore, it appears from an exhibition catalogue from the Gemeente Museum Arnhem that was uncovered during the investigation that, in March 1934, the currently claimed painting was in the possession of Dieren-based art dealership Firma D. Katz. This catalogue indicates the painting’s earlier provenance as: ‘Semmel, Berlijn’ [Semmel, Berlin]. With regard to the work in question, this provenance was also mentioned in a copy of an exhibition catalogue from the Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven from 1936 which was submitted by the applicant. In addition, it can be concluded from a photo card from the Netherlands Institute for Art History (hereafter referred to as: ‘the RKD’) that the currently claimed painting was once part of a ‘Semmel’ collection.

    According to the applicant, Semmel was in possession of the currently claimed painting between 1930 and 21 November 1933, the date on which he had it auctioned by Frederik Muller & Cie in Amsterdam. The auction catalogue does list the currently claimed painting, but not the provenance name. However, the title page of the copy of this catalogue from the RKD, which was consulted by the BHG during their investigation, contains, under the title ‘Tableaux Anciens provenant de Diverses Collections Privées’ [Old paintings from various private collections] , the hand-written note ‘(o.a. R. Semmel uit Berlijn)’ [(incl. R. Semmel of Berlin)]. It is unclear who wrote this and to which of the individual works in the catalogue it refers. It is also unknown whether the painting was actually sold at the auction.

  6. According to the applicant, Semmel developed initiatives after the war to regain his lost assets. However, the applicant also stated that no post-war report was submitted to the Netherlands Art Property Foundation with regard to the missing works. The Committee has established that in so far as contact was made with the Dutch authorities, this did not lead to a decision regarding the painting for which the applicant is currently seeking restitution. The case has not been settled in the past and the applicant’s request is, therefore, admissible.

  7. Pursuant to current restitution policy, the Committee can only recommend restitution if the original owner lost possession involuntarily due to circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime. According to the Ekkart Committee’s eighth recommendation of 26 April 2001, art objects can only be returned if the title thereto has been proved with a high degree of probability and there are no indications to the contrary.

  8. In terms of ownership, the Committee deems it highly probable that the currently claimed painting NK 2693 was once part of Richard Semmel’s art collection in Berlin. In this context, the Committee refers to the BHG’s conclusion regarding provenance and the art-historical sources mentioned under consideration 5, in which the painting in question is linked to the provenance ‘Semmel’ and ‘Semmel, Berlijn’ [Semmel, Berlin]. The Committee also noted that Richard Semmel’s collection was internationally known at the time. The Committee is therefore of the opinion that it is sufficiently likely that the annotation ‘(o.a. R. Semmel uit Berlijn)’ [(incl. R. Semmel of Berlin)] on the catalogue from the auction of 21 November 1933 mentioned in consideration 5 relates to the currently claimed painting. With that, the Committee deems that the ownership rights have been proved with a high degree of probability. The next question is whether Semmel lost possession of the claimed work involuntarily due to circumstances directly attributable to the Nazi regime.

  9. It can be concluded from statements made by applicants that Semmel experienced the anti-Jewish climate in Germany from as early as 1933 onwards. As stated in consideration 3, Semmel was persecuted immediately after the Nazis assumed power not only because of his Jewish background but also because of his active involvement in the Deutsche Demokratische Partei [German Democratic Party]. It appears that Semmel was put under such pressure that he fled Germany in April 1933 and as a result was forced to sell his property or leave it behind. The Committee assumes that Semmel offered his work for auction at the Amsterdam-based auction house Frederik Muller & Cie in relation to his flight from Nazi Germany. It is unclear whether the painting was actually sold at this auction. The Committee assumes that if this was not the case, the painting was re-auctioned at a later date or sold privately, since the Committee’s investigation has shown that the painting was no longer in Semmel’s possession in March 1934. The Committee, therefore, considers the painting to have been sold in connection with Semmel’s flight, and deems, therefore, the loss of possession involuntary as a result of circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime.

  10. The Committee is, therefore, of the opinion that it has been proved with a high degree of probability that Semmel lost possession of NK 2693 as a result of circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime. Finally, the Committee has considered whether a payment obligation should be imposed in return for restitution of the work. It is plausible that Semmel received the purchase sum when the painting was sold. However, no such information was found during the investigation. In accordance with the Ekkart Committee’s fourth recommendation of 26 April 2001, a payment obligation only applies if the seller had free disposal of the proceeds. In accordance with current national policy, repayment is unnecessary if the purchase sum was probably used to escape Nazi persecution, as was the case with Semmel. In the Committee’s opinion, therefore, no payment obligation is required in this case.

CONCLUSION

    The Restitutions Committee advises the Minister for Education, Culture and Science to grant restitution of the painting Portrait of a man by T. de Keyser (NK 2693) to the rightful heirs to the estate of Richard Semmel.

    Adopted at the meeting of 1 July 2009 by W.J.M. Davids (chairman), J.Th.M. Bank, J.C.M. Leijten, P.J.N. van Os, E.J. van Straaten, H.M. Verrijn Stuart, I.C. van der Vlies (vice-chairman), and signed by the chair and the secretary.

    (W.J.M. Davids, chairman)    (E. Campfens, secretary)