A British university museum has agreed to return a 19th-century painting by French artist Gustave Courbet, which was seized by the Nazis, to the descendants of its original Jewish owner.
Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, in eastern England, is acting on the advice of a government-appointed expert panel, which investigates claims for Nazi loot.
For more than a year, the panel probed the history of “La Ronde Enfantine”, an oil landscape dating from about 1862 that has been lying in the museum’s storage.
In a report published Tuesday, it concluded that the evidence supported the restitution claim made by the heirs of its one-time owner, Robert Bing, a French Resistance hero during World War II.
“This is a deliberate seizure by the German authorities from a Jewish citizen of France with the diversion of the work of art to Nazi leaders,” the 19-page review stated.
“No other reason for seizure other than the Jewishness of Mr Bing has appeared to explain this seizure.”
It added that the museum had “cared for the work so that it can now be restored to the heirs of the original owners”.
A spokesperson for the Fitzwilliam said it will follow the advice.
The panel confirmed that Nazi occupiers stole the artwork from Bing’s Paris apartment in 1941, after he and his widowed mother had fled the city before their arrival.
His maternal grandmother had likely acquired the oil-on-canvas, depicting children playing in woodland, after marrying a wealthy banker and merchant.
– ‘Colourful history’ –
Two members of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) — a Nazi organisation set up to traffic plundered art — stole the painting, the report said.
The artwork then had “a somewhat colourful history” and was held during the war for Gestapo founder Hermann Goering, who amassed a large collection of stolen art.
“He proposed to exchange it as part of a transaction involving the German Foreign Minister, (Joachim von) Ribbentrop, but either the latter or his wife disliked the work and that transaction did not proceed,” the report revealed.
In 1951, La Ronde Enfantine resurfaced in the inventory of a London art dealership and was subsequently sold to the then Dean of York, Eric Milner-White.
The Anglican priest, a “generous donor of some 50 paintings to public collections in the UK”, gifted the artwork to the Cambridge museum later that year, according to the report.
It noted that its recommendation “implies no criticism” of the museum or Milner-White, who both “acted honourably and in accordance with the standards prevailing at the time”.
Courbet, who died in 1877, was the leader of the Realist movement in French art and responsible for “L’Origine du monde”, considered the most scandalous painting of the 19th century for its depiction of a woman’s genitalia.
Bing, meanwhile, was active in the French Resistance until 1944, and received several notable awards for bravery. He died in 1993.
© Agence France-Presse