A 101-year-old Dutch woman found a painting that had been looted from her father by the Nazis during World War II, but she decided to sell it through Sotheby’s in London so her family could benefit from the process.
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 paintings are in the National Gallery in London.
It hung in his childhood home in Arnhem, a much-loved possession of his father, Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder, doctor and director of the town’s children’s hospital, who went into hiding after refusing to accept Nazi orders.
After Germany invaded Holland, he had stored the painting at the Bank of Amsterdam in Arnhem, thinking it would be safe there, but the Nazis broke into the vaults and seized it, amid widespread looting, destruction and devastation.
In 1944, Allied forces launched Operation Market Garden, in which the British 1st Airborne Division attempted to seize the strategically important road bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, as depicted in the classic film A Bridge Too Far.
Amidst the chaos of war, the painting disappeared without a trace for 75 years. But detective work by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe has established that it surfaced in a Dusseldorf gallery in the mid-1950s, was auctioned in Amsterdam in 1969 and acquired by a private collector in Germany in 1971. Negotiations with the collector led to the painting being returned to Bischoff van Heemskerck in 2021.
Recalling the moment she saw him again, she told the Guardian: “I was amazed.”
Her father died in 1969. He would have been “so happy to have it back,” she says.
But, after having carefully preserved the painting for six months, she entrusted it to Sotheby’s in London, which will put it up for auction on July 6. It is estimated between £30,000 and £50,000.
She said: “I had five siblings. There are 20 offspring and they are very sweet so I never felt like it was mine. It’s family.
Hearing about the painting’s recovery, Christopher Marinello, one of the leading advocates for restitution, said, “It’s wonderful for the heirs to get something back after so long. It’s a shame that there aren’t enough collectors and dealers who are willing to cooperate with heirs or come forward voluntarily.
Bischoff van Heemskerck was “a little” moved by the painting because memories of the war had ebbed him away.
She recalls SS officers arriving at the family home, just after her father had gone into hiding because, like “many friends of ours [who] were taken, he refused to Follow @ orders from the Germans.
She added: “My father was almost arrested by the German secret police…I opened the door when they came for him. They were so mad… We had to leave… In the night we took what we could.
She joins the Resistance, becomes a smuggler, and would have liked to give refuge to Jews in her home, but it would have been too dangerous because her father and brother were wanted by the Germans.
She minimizes her bravery: “You would have done it too, I’m sure. We hoped to win the war and we did everything to help.