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AMSTERDAM, July 4 (Reuters) – For at least two decades, a painting of fishing boats under overcast skies has hung on the wall of the Dutch parliament, admired by lawmakers unconcerned about its origins.

Now experts are investigating whether Hendrik Willem Mesdag’s 19th-century masterpiece ‘The Fishing Boats off the Coast’ could be Nazi-looted art.

It is part of a new review of art in Dutch museums and public places, following earlier efforts to return stolen pieces to heirs by a government-backed restitution committee, which oversaw the review of dozens of works of art since 2001.

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The Netherlands Cultural Heritage Agency, responsible for the protection and preservation of art objects that were returned to the Netherlands from Germany after World War II, applies a broader definition of art looted as it seeks to return more property taken mainly from Jewish families. .

“There is no free will if a family had to sell something so they could flee to a safe country,” spokesman Dolf Muller said.

For four years, the agency’s research team will investigate 3,500 objects, including 1,700 paintings.

“The investigation is not easy,” said senior adviser Perry Schrier, likening the work to 80-year-old cold cases.

Mesdag’s painting was sold by an unknown seller through an auction house in The Hague in 1941, a year after Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands.

It was recovered in Germany after the war and brought back to the Netherlands, but research techniques at the time failed to establish its origin.

Scholars now have access to new technologies, better archives, digitized historical journals and cameras that can detect nearly extinct texts, Schrier said.

In the meantime, Mesdag’s painting is kept in a highly secure repository.

Schrier said a seemingly insignificant tag discovered on the back of the painting that names the auction house “Villa Erica” ​​could be a vital clue in tracking down the original owner.

“It makes my research heart beat faster,” he said.

The heirs, if found, have a chance to recover the work if it is proven that there was a forced sale.

“There aren’t many people left from the first generation,” Schrier said. “We are mainly in contact with the second, the third, even the fourth generation.” But for every family, the feeling of recovering looted art cannot be understated, he added.

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Reporting by Charlotte Van Campenhout, Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Janet Lawrence

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