Rembrandt’s masterpiece Saint Peter Kneeling from 1631 was due to be exhibited again in the Netherlands for the first time in 120 years. Following lengthy negotiations, the Jewish Historical Museum had secured the loan of the painting from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It was to be the highlight of an exhibition that opens on 13 September 2019, which is part of the celebrations of the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death.
At the last minute, the Israeli Museum announced that the painting is not coming to the Netherlands. ‘That is a disappointment’, says Emile Schrijver, director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, who explains where the problem lay.
Talks began two and a half years ago with the Israel Museum, one of the most important Jewish museums in the world. The Jewish Cultural Quarter has maintained good relations with this museum for years, says Schrijver. ‘The museum promised us several times that we could borrow the Rembrandt painting. Everything was proceeding smoothly.’
However, a few weeks before the opening, the Israel Museum came with bad news. The loan cannot not go ahead because the museum believes that if someone were to make a claim on the painting, its interest would not be sufficiently guaranteed. This issue is topical because of the restitution of artworks stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War. In the Netherlands, the Restitutions Committee regularly determines that looted artworks held in museums must be returned to the rightful owners, or their heirs.
That is impossible with Rembrandt’s painting Saint Peter Kneeling, says Schrijver. ‘The painting has a clean provenance. We know exactly where it was during and after the war.’ In 2001, an American philanthropist couple donated it to the Israel Museum, thus giving the museum its first Rembrandt.
Any eventual claim relating to its provenance is therefore ‘entirely theoretical’, says Schrijver. ‘Someone could say that the painting hung in his grandfather’s living room, but there is, of course, no evidence of that at all.’ Nonetheless, the Israel Museum was apprehensive about the possibility that the painting could be seized. ‘I cannot rule out that the museum has experience with this issue. With an Israeli museum, someone might look for ways to cause a problem.’ The Israel Museum wanted absolute certainty that the Rembrandt would return to Israel after the exhibition. Schrijver: ‘At the request of the Israel Museum, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was prepared to issue a statement of immunity. This means that, in principle, no seizure can be made, or that any seizure can quickly be overruled because the painting is owned by the Israeli State.’
The major stumbling block would be the possible mediation of the Dutch court, whose responsibility it would be to overrule any possible seizure. That could mean that Israel would be without its masterpiece for a few months until the judge determined that the painting is indeed government property and therefore immune to seizure. ‘The Israel Museum did not want to take this risk and asked for a 100% guarantee. That is a guarantee that the Dutch State cannot give. The legislation does not allow for it.’
The big frustration is that the Israel Museum pulled out so late. ‘It is ultimately a political choice, because the risk is practically non-existent.’ The Jewish Historical Museum has decided to go ahead with the exhibition, but with a reproduction of Saint Peter Kneeling. At the last minute, the Rijksmuseum has agreed to lend us another Rembrandt, the oil sketch Joseph Telling His Dreams from around 1633.
‘We have invested heavily in the exhibition’, says Schrijver. ‘Visitors get to see Saint Peter Kneeling in all possible forms and learn a great deal about Rembrandt’s masterpiece. Only the original is missing. That is an unusual, undesirable and unfortunate situation.’