Press Release

 Old Master Painting from Eminent Dutch Collection is Recovered and Restored
to 101-year-old Heir and Her Family

Missing for over 75 years, Caspar Netscher’s Portrait of Steven Wolters was looted during WWII
from the Amsterdam Bank in Arnhem

Portrait to be offered at Sotheby’s London in July,

The second painting to be returned to the family in recent years following the restitution
of Jacob Ochtervelt’s The Oyster Meal in 2017


13 June 2022:   In an extraordinary turn of events, a second painting from an illustrious Dutch collection of Old Master paintings, looted by the Nazis from a bank vault in 1945, has been recovered by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe. The work, a portrait of Dutch merchant Steven Wolters painted by Caspar Netscher in 1683, will be offered at Sotheby’s London as part of the Old Masters Day Auction in July with an estimate of £30,000- £50,000.

Mrs Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck – now aged 101 - spent many decades searching for the missing portrait, which was part of her father Dr Smidt van Gelder’s exceptional Old Master paintings collection that he had stored for safekeeping in a Dutch bank during the war. The painting had hung behind her chair in the dining room of her childhood home in Arnhem, the Netherlands, over 75 years ago. Portrait of Steven Wolters is the second painting to be found and returned to the family in recent years through the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, following the restitution of Jacob Ochtervelt’s The Oyster Meal in 2017, which went on to sell at Sotheby’s in July 2018 for £1.93million.

Brought up in Arnhem, Caspar Netscher studied at the workshop of Gerard ter Borch, a significant genre painter of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, in around 1655. From 1662 Netscher lived and worked in The Hague, turning to portraiture commissions in addition to genre scenes, which were met with great success.

George Gordon, Co-chairman, Sotheby’s, Old Master Paintings Worldwide, said, “This 17th century painting by Caspar Netscher is a compelling example of Dutch portraiture of this era, highlighting the artist’s fine eye for detail and skill at depicting texture and textiles. I am delighted that the work has been rightfully returned to the heirs of the collector, and proud that Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck has once again entrusted Sotheby’s to offer this painting, with such a poignant backstory, as part of our Old Masters auction this summer.

Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck (above) said, “I was so happy to see the painting again which always hung behind my chair in the dining room. We all missed this painting very much because it was so much part of our daily life. It is a beautiful painting, beautifully painted, with its subtle combination of colours on the wonderful coat and the expression on the face of the sitter which shows him to be a generous man, an impressive man.”

Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck had spent years looking for the portrait, experiencing bitter disappointment some fifteen years ago when she saw what seemed to be the painting in an exhibition at Slot Zeist in the Netherlands. She describes how her “heart stood still” at its sight, only to discover after making enquiries that the painting was a 17th century copy of the original.

In a remarkable coincidence, Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck is related to Steven Wolters, the sitter in this Netscher portrait, through her elder sister, Maria Cornelia Smidt van Gelder (1917-1993), who married the fifth great grandson of his older brother, Louis Wolters (1649-1684).


An outstanding collection

Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck’s father, Dr Joan Hendrik Smidt van Gelder (1887-1969), director of the Kinderziekenhuis (Children’s Hospital) in Arnhem, developed a love of art at an early age. Even as a student he visited galleries and dealers and purchased whatever he could afford. By the time that war broke out in 1939 he had created an exceptional collection of over 25 significant Old Master paintings including works by Jacob de Wit, Salomon van Ruysdael, Jan van Huysum and Jacob Ochtervelt.

Stored for safekeeping

The following year, Germany invaded the Netherlands and this illustrious collection was quickly identified as of interest to the Nazis. Fearful that his paintings might be seized, Dr Smidt van Gelder took 14 of his most treasured works, including Portrait of Steven Wolters, to the Amsterdam (Amsterdamsche) Bank in Arnhem, where he deposited them in a vault for safekeeping.

On 17 September 1944, Allied troops were dropped north of Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden — an attempt to advance into Germany through the Lower Rhine. The battle that followed raged for ten days, at the end of which the defeated Allies finally withdrew, having lost three-quarters of their men. During the course of the battle, the Germans ordered the residents of Arnhem to evacuate the city, and immediately began to plunder and loot houses, shops and buildings, destroying any property that could not be carried away.

Lost for 75 years

After the retreat of the Allies, the German plundering continued, and in early 1945 the vaults of the Amsterdam Bank were broken open and the contents looted. Eight of Dr Smidt van Gelder’s paintings were recovered after the war through the efforts of the Dutch authorities, but six of the 14 paintings could not be found and remained missing. Happily, thanks to the herculean efforts of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, Portrait of Steven Wolters joins The Oyster Meal as the second of the missing works to be reunited with the family in the last five years.

The Commission’s research discovered that the Portrait of Steven Wolters first reappeared in the mid-1950s at the small Galerie Peiffer in Düsseldorf together with the Ochtervelt painting. The gallery specialized in 19th century German painting and called in experts to advise on the attribution of these two Old Master paintings. Subsequently the Portrait of Steven Wolters was re-introduced onto the international art market through an auction sale in Amsterdam in 1969. It was later acquired by a private collector in Germany in 1971. After negotiations with the collector by the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, the painting was returned to the family in 2021.

The painting

Steven Wolters was a merchant, director and secretary of the Levantse Handel (Levant Trade) between 1690-95, and a noted art collector - the auction of his estate lasted for 3 days between 20-23 November 1758, with a total of 1,573 objects, including over 1,000 prints, offered for sale.

The portrait is an outstanding example of Caspar Netscher’s skilled rendering of textiles such as silk and brocade, sumptuously depicting the folds of Steven Wolters’ robe and the figures and floral motifs that adorn it. Garments such as this, from China, Japan and Persia, were among the most prized commodities brought back to the Netherlands by the Dutch East India Company. The V.O.C. (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) even set up a factory specifically to manufacture Persian silks for the Dutch trade - and Japansche rocken (Japanese robes) were particularly fashionable among the mercantile and artistic elite in the last decades of the 17th century when this portrait was painted.

It is likely that Wolter’s robe is made from ‘safavid’, a 16th or 17th century Iranian silk-like fabric. The air of wealth, sophistication, and exoticism that such rare and beautiful textiles lent to sitters is attested to by the number of portraits in which subjects chose to be depicted wearing them. It is likely that Netscher owned some of this material himself, though Wolters’ own links with the Levant may also account for his dress.

Anne Webber, Co-Chair, Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which traced and recovered the painting on behalf of the family, said, “This is a very beautiful painting which truly demonstrates the connoisseurship of Dr Smidt van Gelder and his wonderful taste. We are very pleased to have located it and to have enabled its return so that Mrs Bischoff van Heemskerck has had the opportunity to see it again and enjoy it hanging on her wall for many months.”

Portrait of Steven Wolters will be on display at Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, from 14th – 16th June.

About Sotheby’s

Established in 1744, Sotheby’s is the world’s premier destination for art and luxury. Sotheby’s promotes access, connoisseurship and preservation of fine art and rare objects through auctions and buy-now channels including private sales, e-commerce and retail. Our trusted global marketplace is supported by an industry-leading technology platform and a network of specialists spanning 40 countries and 50 categories, which include Contemporary Art, Modern and Impressionist Art, Old Masters, Chinese Works of Art, Jewelry, Watches, Wine and Spirits, and Interiors, among many others.

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Issue date: 13th June 2022

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