At the age of 101, a Dutch woman was reunited with a painting looted from her father by the Nazis during World War II, but she has decided to sell it through Sotheby’s in London so her family can benefit from the proceeds.
Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck, a non-practicing Baptist who joined the Dutch resistance, had never given up hope of finding the 1683 portrait of Steven Wolters by Caspar Netscher, a Dutch master whose painting is in the National Gallery in London located in London.
It had hung in her childhood home in Arnhem, a beloved possession of her father, Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder, a doctor and director of the city’s children’s hospital, who went into hiding after refusing to accept Nazi orders.
After the German invasion of Holland he had kept the painting at the Amsterdamer Bank in Arnhem, thinking it would be safe there, but the Nazis broke into the vaults and confiscated it amid widespread looting, destruction and devastation.
In 1944, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden, in which the British 1st Airborne Division attempted to capture the strategically important road bridge across the Rhine near Arnhem, as featured in the classic film A Bridge Too Far.
In the midst of the turmoil of war, the painting disappeared without a trace for 75 years. But detective work by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe determined that it had turned up in a Düsseldorf gallery in the mid-1950s, was auctioned in Amsterdam in 1969, and was acquired by a private collector in Germany in 1971. Negotiations with the collector resulted in the painting being returned to Bischoff van Heemskerck in 2021.
Recalling the moment she saw it again, she told the Guardian: “I was amazed.”
Her father died in 1969. He would have been “so happy it came back,” she said.
But after cherishing the painting for six months, she has given it to Sotheby’s in London, which will auction it on July 6. It is estimated at between £30,000 and £50,000.
She said: “I had five brothers and sisters. There are 20 offspring and they are very cute so I never felt like it was mine. It’s from the family.”
Christopher Marinello, a leading restitution attorney, heard of the painting’s recovery and said: “It is wonderful for the heirs to recover something after such a long time. It’s a shame that not enough collectors and dealers are willing to work with heirs or volunteer.”
Bischoff van Heemskerck was “a bit” emotional about the painting because memories of war flooded through it.
She recalled that SS officers showed up at the family home shortly after her father went into hiding because “like many friends of ours [who] were taken, he refused [follow] Orders from the Germans”.
She added, “My father was almost arrested by the German secret police … I opened the door when they picked him up. They were so angry… We had to go… At night we took what we could.”
She joined the resistance, became a courier and would have wanted to seek refuge from Jews in her house, but it would have been too dangerous because both her father and brother were wanted by the Germans.
She downplays her bravery: “You would have done that too, I’m sure. We hoped we would win the war and did everything we could to help.”