BERLIN – The German Minister for State and Culture returned on Tuesday a painting by a French painter to relatives of the original owner in the government’s fifth case of restitution of looted art by the Nazis during World War II (1939-49).
“Portrait of a Seated Young Woman” by Thomas Couture (1815-1879) was returned to its rightful owners in a ceremony in Berlin as part of a large operation to find the original patrons of some 1,500 artworks – known as the Kunstfund Gurlitt – that had been looted by the Nazis and were found in an apartment in Schwabing, Munich, in 2012.
“A tiny, repaired hole in the canvas brought the crucial clue to the origin of the painting, a small tearing at the breast of the ‘young woman,’” the Ministry for State and Culture explained on its website.
“That’s exactly what (Georges) Mandel’s partner, Beatrice Bretty, had said when she had reported the painting missing after the end of the war – luckily, because it is often the smallest details or even large coincidences that determine whether the provenance of one or the other has been lost clarify work beyond doubt,” the ministry added.
In 2012, a case that shook the art world saw around 1,500 artworks – many of which had been expropriated by the Nazis during the war – were confiscated from an apartment belonging to Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a well-known art dealer, Hildebrand Gurlitt.
The collection included works by Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse and, in 2014, after Gurtlitt’s death and following a deal between the Federal Government and the Free State of Bavaria, the vast collection of looted art was handed over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern.
The original owner of “Portrait of a Seated Young Woman” was George Mandel, a Jewish politician and Nazi opponent who was detained in German concentration camps and later killed by a French militia in 1944.
“This case, too, reminds us to never let up in the unreserved processing of Nazi art robbery, for which Germany bears responsibility,” the Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters said.
The artworks that were recovered from the Kunstfund Gurlitt have since been exhibited at the Bern Museum of Fine Arts, Bundeskunsthalle Bonn and later at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.
Grütters ended the hand-over ceremony by thanking Mandel’s family for allowing the canvas to be shown at all three exhibition locations and stating it gave the Kunstfund Gurlitt exhibition a moving conclusion by honoring and sharing Georges Mandel’s fate with the broader public.
The State Culture Ministry recently increased the budget for provenance research of artworks after setting up the German Cultural Heritage Loss Centre in Magdeburg in central Germany in 2014 as a direct response to the Kunstfund Gurlitt findings.