The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels have returned a painting by Lovis Corinth to the heirs of its original German-Jewish owners, from whom the painting was looted nearly 80 years ago during World War II.
Since 1951, Corinth’s Still Life with Flowers (1913) had been held in the collection of the Belgian museum group, which comprises a network of six state-run museums. The painting was transferred there after officials were unable to recover information on its previous owners during the postwar era. In a ceremony held at the museum, Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s secretary of state who oversees economic recovery, returned the work to a lawyer representing the nine descendants of Gustav and Emma Mayer.
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The family approached the museum in 2016 to inquire about the work. Since 2008, the painting had been included in an online registry launched by the museum that features the provenances of 27 works in the Brussels collections’ with unclear ownership records. This is the first work that has ever been restituted from the museums’ collections.
The Mayers fled Germany in 1938, traveling through Italy and Switzerland, and landing in Brussels temporarily. They eventually settled in the U.K a year later. In the interim, they placed a collection of 30 paintings in storage in the Belgium city.
The museum’s leaders and the Belgian state secretary expressed pride in being able to return the work after decades. “We never bought this painting, we were never the owners, we were the custodians for the Belgian state,” said Michel Draguet, the museum’s director, in a statement to the Guardian.
By 1943, all of the Mayers’ stored works had been looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a Nazi task force in charge of looting cultural property across occupied territories. The Corinth still life was recovered by Belgian art historian Leo Van Puyvelde after German occupation ended in Brussels and handed it over to the state’s department for economic recovery. The Corinth painting is the only work from the Mayer’s holdings to have been recovered so far.
Before its return, the painting had been displayed in an exhibition room dedicated to works that have provenance gaps around the time of World War II. The display is part of the institutional group’s “Museum in Questions” initiative, launched in 2021.