Lovis Corinth still life restituted to its rightful owners after 80 years

A handover ceremony took place last week in an exhibition room dedicated to works of art with uncertain provenance which had been given to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in 1951.

The painting, Still Life with Flowers(1913), depicts pink flowers in a blue vase. It is by the German artist Lovis Corinth (1858-1925), a painter known for his synthesis of the impressionist and expressionist artistic styles. It belonged to a German-Jewish couple, Gustav and Emma Mayer, who were based in Frankfurt and owned a collection of around 30 paintings. In 1938, they fled Germany, making their way through Italy and Switzerland, before temporarily relocating to Brussels. Whilst there, they placed their collection in storage, before fleeing to England and settling in Bournemouth.

Whilst the Mayers were taking refuge in England, their paintings in Brussels were being looted by the Nazis, who deemed work by Corinth to be “degenerate”. By 1951, the Corinth still life had been entrusted to the Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels after officials had been unable to locate any information about who it should be returned to. For many decades, it remained in their collection, with curators unable to trace any provenance. Renewed attention was paid to restituting it following Belgium’s participation in the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in December 1998. Following this, the museums made a database of the 27 works of art in their collections with uncertain provenance, in the hope it may assist with future restitutions. 

In 2016, lawyers for the nine descendants of Gustav and Emma Mayer first approached the museum after identifying the work on the database. Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s secretary of state in charge of museums said, “this restitution, the first by the Museums of Fine Arts, is a very strong signal: even decades later, justice can triumph.” Michel Draguet, the museum’s director, emphasized that they do not see these works as part of their permanent collection, and that it was with great joy that they returned the Corinth still life:  “We never bought the painting, we were never the owners, we were the custodians for the Belgian state.”

Imke Gielen, a German lawyer acting for the Mayer family, said it was a historic day for the descendants, who were “delighted that at least one of the missing paintings has been identified after 80 years”. The task of locating the original collection has evidently been difficult, and she adds that “we have no images; we have descriptions, not all of them are very detailed unfortunately”.

This is not the first Corinth painting which has been the subject of a restitution case recently. Last year, Germany’s Advisory Commission for Nazi-looted art rejected a claim for the restitution of a portrait by Corinth of the German-Jewish theatre critic and essayists Alfred Kerr on the grounds of a lack of evidence, and a claim to the painting by another family.

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