“Justice May Triumph”: Painting Looted by Nazis Returned to Owners After 80 Years | art heist

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Some 80 years after the Nazi sack, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels have returned an Expressionist painting to the descendants of a German-Jewish couple.

Flowers, a still life by the German artist from 1913 Lovis Corinthwas entrusted to the museums in 1951 because post-war investigators were unable to locate the original owners.

After years of research, the work has now been returned, the first return of a work of art looted from a Jewish family during World War II by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which comprises six separate museums featuring works from the old masters to Magritte.

Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s State Secretary for Museums, gave the work to a lawyer representing the nine great-grandchildren of Gustav and Emma Mayer, a German-Jewish couple who fled Germany in 1938.

Michel Draguet, the museum’s director, said he felt no sadness at the work leaving the museum complex. Photo: Johanna Geron/Reuters

“This return, the first by the Fine Arts Museums, is a very strong signal: even decades later, justice can triumph,” said Dermine. The return of the painting is also “an opportunity to remind people of the horrors” that nationalism and the far right can lead to, he said. “To fix is ​​to remember, and to remember is to avoid the worst coming back.”

The Mayers ran a successful business in Frankfurt before fleeing Nazi persecution. They owned 30 paintings, which were stored in Brussels after a 14-month stay in the Belgian capital in 1938-9. Flowers is the only one recovered. Lawyers for the family contacted the museum in 2016, eight years after its founding an online database around 27 works of uncertain provenance in the collections as part of the search for owners.

Imke Gielen, a lawyer at Berlin law firm Von Trott, which acts on behalf of the Mayers’ descendants, said it was a historic day for the family. “They are delighted that at least one of the missing paintings has been identified after 80 years and has now been returned.”

The nine descendants, who live in the UK, South Africa and the US, have yet to decide what to do with the painting, she said: “Today is Restitution Day which we are celebrating and other things will be in the coming days come. The family has to decide.”

Gustav and Emma Mayer arrived in Brussels in June 1938 after fleeing via Italy and Switzerland. In August 1939, just days before the outbreak of war, they made it to Britain, where they settled in Bournemouth. Her eldest son was Ernst interned with others German-Jewish refugees as “enemy alien” on the Isle of Mann. Gustav Mayer, already ailing when he left Germany, died of natural causes in his mid-80s in 1940, although his death may have been hastened by the trauma of persecution and the arduous journey. His wife Emma died in 1944.

Belgian State Secretary for Science Policy, Recreation, Thomas Dermine and the family lawyer Imke Gielen
This is the first restitution by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of an artwork looted from a Jewish family during World War II. Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

They never saw her pictures again. In 1942, some works disappeared from the Mayer collection when the Nazi special task force led by Hitler’s henchman Alfred Rosenberg began looting cultural treasures belonging to European Jews. By 1943 all Mayer property in Brussels had been stolen. A highlight of the collection was a painting of a horseman on the beach at Max Lieberman, one of the leading impressionists in Germany. There were other works by Corinth, as well as lesser-known Frankfurt artists.

Michel Draguet, the museum’s director, said he felt no sadness at the work leaving the museum, where it was displayed in the modern art collection. “We never bought this painting, we were never the owners, we were the administrators of the Belgian state.” He and all his staff felt they were fulfilling the museum’s role in society.

Draguet had retrieved the painting from the museum’s inventory, a brown A4-sized book with the word “Register” printed in French and Dutch on the front.

The handover ceremony took place in a new exhibition room showing other works given to the museum in 1951, when the Belgian Post-War Economic Revival Service, the body responsible for the return of lost works of art, was dissolved. The owners of the original works, a mix of Old Masters and 19th-century landscapes, have either never been identified or there are questions as to their acquisition.

A 17th-century work by Bavarian artist Hans Rottenhammer, Diana and Callisto was purchased from a Brussels art collector in 1941 by a curator employed by Hermann Göring. Nothing is known about the work’s ownership before 1941, which raises the question of a possible forced sale at an earlier date.

The Mayers’ descendants repaid the German government the “small compensation” they received for the loss of Flowers in the 1970s, said Gielen, their attorney.

Meanwhile, with the help of researchers, the family continues to search for the 29 missing paintings, all of which are registered in the German government’s database. lostart.de. At the moment there are no indications. “We have no pictures; We have descriptions, but unfortunately not all of them are very detailed,” said Gielen. “None of the other works have yet been identified.”

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