Nazi-looted painting returned to Jewish family after 80 years
Eight decades after Gustav and Emma Mayer lost most of their possessions as they fled Germany on the eve of World War II, one of their paintings has been returned to their nine great-grandchildren.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Brussels in Belgium donated to Lovis Corinth flowers, a 1913 still life of pink flowers in a blue vase, returned to the family in a ceremony on February 10, according to The Guardian. The work was one of 27 the museums listed on an online database of pieces whose ownership history is uncertain. Lawyers for the Mayer descendants first inquired about flowers in 2016. It is the only work in the collection that has been returned.
The Nazis were known to loot and destroy art they deemed un-German, Jewish, or “degenerate”. Simultaneously, many works of art were abandoned by Jews fleeing for their lives. In subsequent decades, it was difficult to determine the provenance – or place of origin – of surviving cultural property and to prove what had been stolen or who owned it before.
The Mayes led a comfortable life in Frankfurt, where they ran a business and owned 30 paintings. They fled Italy and Switzerland before arriving in Belgium in 1938. During a 14-month stay in Brussels, the couple left their collection of paintings in storage and arrived in Britain a few days before the start of the war. flowers is the only table to have been recovered.
The Mayers did not live long enough to see the end of the war. Gustav was already old and died of poor health in 1940; Emma followed him four years later. By 1943, all of the Mayers’ art in Brussels had been stolen by the Nazis. flowers was given to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in 1951, after investigators failed to establish its ownership records.
Imke Gielen, a Berlin-based lawyer representing the descendants, told the Guardian: “They are delighted that at least one of the missing paintings has been identified after 80 years and has now been returned.” The director of the museum, Michel Draguet, did not regret having lost flowerstelling the publication: “We never bought this painting, we were never the owners, we were the custodians for the Belgian State.”
Gustav and Emma’s great-grandchildren, who now live in the UK, South Africa and the US, will continue to search for the remaining 29 paintings in the Mayer collection. This is a daunting task, as they have no images of the missing works and must rely on descriptions transmitted from memory.