A British university museum has agreed to return a 19th-century painting by French artist Gustave Courbet, captured by the Nazis, to the descendants of its original Jewish owner.
Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, in eastern England, is acting on advice from a government-appointed panel of experts investigating claims of Nazi loot.
For more than a year, the panel explored the history of “La Ronde Enfantine,” an oil landscape from around 1862 located in the museum’s storage.
In a report published on Tuesday, he concluded that the evidence supported the demand for restitution made by the heirs of its one-time owner, Robert Bing, a hero of the French Resistance during the Second World War.
“This is a deliberate seizure by the German authorities from a French Jewish citizen while diverting the artwork to Nazi leaders,” the 19-page review said.
“No other reason for seizure other than Mr. Bing’s Judaism appears to have explained this seizure.”
He added that the museum was “taking care of the work so that it can now be returned to the heirs of the original owners.”
A spokesman 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 fled the city before their arrival.
The oil-on-canvas, which shows children playing in the woodland, was probably acquired by his maternal grandmother after he married a wealthy banker and merchant.
The painting was stolen by two members of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) – a Nazi organization set up to loot art with traffic – the report said.
The artwork then had a “colorful history” and was held during the war for the founder of the Gestapo, 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 neither the latter nor his wife liked the work and that transaction was not continued,” the report indicated.
In 1951, La Ronde Enfantine resurfaced in the inventory of a London art dealer and was sold to the then Dean of York, Eric Milner-White.
The Anglican priest, “a generous donor of around 50 paintings to public collections in the UK,” gave the artwork to the Cambridge museum later that year, according to the report.
He noted that his recommendation does not bring “any criticism” of the museum or Milner-White, who “acted honorably and according to the standards that prevailed at the time”.
Courbet, who died in 1877, was the leader of the Realist movement in French art and was responsible for “L’Origine du monde,” considered the most scandalous painting of the 19th century for its depiction of female genitalia.
Meanwhile, Bing was active in the French Resistance until 1944, and received several notable awards for bravery. He died in 1993.