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Art Vigilante Kamila Gourdie is Fighting for Lost Masterpieces

Photography by Caseyn Eckhardt.

As a child, Elisabeth Cardozo recalls, the art that hung in her grandparents’ villa in Amsterdam was the perfect backdrop for their boisterous family gatherings. She also has darker associations with it. She recalls the collection being sold during the Second World War in exchange for a shelter from the Nazis, located near the Anne Frank House. From the ages of eight through 11, instead of lively play, she muffled her laughter and was forbidden to go outside. At the time, when art wasn’t stolen outright by the Nazis, it was sold for far less than its value, the money being so desperately needed. It took seven decades, but Cardozo, now 85, finally set out to get it back.

That’s when Kamila Gourdie got involved. As president of the Toronto- based art-restitution firm Mondex Corporation, Gourdie and her staff of two dozen specialize in helping families that lost art during the Second World War to reclaim their pieces, some of which are masterworks on prominent display in major museums. “Now she is an older adult and she had a great life,” Gourdie says. “But the years that she spent in hiding were very traumatic. The collection means a lot because it’s basically what saved their lives.”

This sense of justice is what has driven Gourdie to succeed in the rarefied world of art restitution, running the company founded by Canadian James Palmer. Born in Poland, Gourdie moved to Canada in 1993 when she was 19. She intended to stay only for the summer, but instead enrolled in university and used her broad language skills (in addition to English and several Eastern European languages, she speaks German, French, and Spanish) as a research assistant at Mondex, navigating the shadowy libraries of documents that form the heart of the art-restitution business. After studying international business at York University, she returned to Mondex in 2005—this time as president.

Describing a typical day in the life of an art justice warrior isn’t easy—Gourdie says that their cases typically take years (sometimes more than a decade) to resolve. “A lot of it might be boring,” she concedes of the work from her office in Midtown Toronto, a plainly furnished space with modern paintings and soothing abstracts by the Polish–Canadian painter and sculptor Augustin Filipovic. “You’re just looking through documents,” she says. “It might be frustrating not finding anything.” She lets out a rare laugh. “And then you find something, and it’s the most exciting day of your year.”

The work necessitates frequent travel, with Gourdie flying back and forth to Europe so often she has memorized flight numbers. Sometimes her husband and their sons join her. The boys, ages six and eight, have had passports since they were four weeks old. “They would love to be with me all the time,” she says. “But they are really understanding, and that makes things a little bit easier.”

The Hague, home to the Dutch Restitution Committee, was a frequent destination last winter as Mondex mounted a campaign to return two paintings—the Baroque painter Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s Still Life with Glass, Glass Stand, and Musical Instruments and Dirck Hals and Dirck van Delen’s oil painting Banquet Scene with Musicians and Shuffle Board Players in an Interior—to Cardozo and her family, collectively referred to as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Jacob Lierens.

In January, Gourdie and Palmer—along with two colleagues and a pair of Dutch lawyers—faced the DRC. The mood, she recalls, was tense: Gourdie remembers committee chair Fred Hammerstein nervously biting his pen. They presented the case, including evidence that the painting had been destined for Hitler’s never-constructed Führermuseum before it was returned to the Dutch government by the Allies. The Dutch government had pledged, in writing, to return the art to its proper owner. That was in 1946. “For them to [not return it to the family] would be ridiculous,” she said in a phone call last February in the wake of the court hearing. “But we have seen some ridiculous decisions [from] them.”

In May, the DRC released its recommendations. “It is plausible that the sale of the paintings…took place in order to save the couple’s lives,” the report determined. “The sale…must therefore be considered as involuntary.” For Gourdie, it was a moment of triumph. “I’m proud you are my mom,” her oldest son told her. “Nothing could have been more validating or made me feel more as though the hard choices had been the right choices,” she says. “Sometimes you hit a trifecta: justice for the clients, a significant win for the business, and a ‘superstar sticker’ from your children.”

It takes equal parts steadfast patience and steely nerves to win the case. “I can lose my cool,” she says. The investigations often follow her home. “There have been a few sleepless nights,” she says. “It takes a lot of creative problem-solving.” And patience? “God yes.” But it’s the stories of people like Cardozo that inspire her to keep going. “Behind each piece of art, there is a family,” she says. “The stories often bring us to tears. It’s really touching, and that makes us even more passionate to bring them some closure and justice.”