Belgian restitution: from Nazi-looted art to colonial-era takings

Posted on: April 14, 2022 by

Let us consider recent developments in Belgium, both in relation to Nazi-looted art and colonial-era collections. First, a recent return of Nazi-looted art. On February 10 the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels returned a 1913 painting by Lovis Corinth, Flowers (left), to members of the Mayer family.  The painting represents a bouquet of pink flowers in a blue vase and had been in the Museum since the end of the Second World War. It was taken off display and returned to the descendants of the family who did not attend the ceremony presided by the museum’s Director Michel Draguet.  The painting had been deposited in Belgium by Gustav and Emma Mayer for 14 months in 1938-1939, along with 29 other works of art, none of which were recovered.  It was subsequently stolen by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the Nazi special unit in charge of looting cultural property throughout Europe.

The Museum had apparently been aware that the work was looted but the restitution to its rightful owners nevertheless took some 80 years.

The Nazis looted famous works in Belgium such as the Michelangelo Pietà from Bruges and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck from Gent.  Both these works were recovered by the Monuments Men after the War in the Altaussee region of Austria and returned to Belgium.

To deal with looted cultural property and other damage caused by the Nazis, Belgium established the Office of Economic Recovery (OER) in 1946. The OER concerned itself with economic damage in a wide sense, including financial and industrial losses.  Only a minor part of its activities was devoted to the restitution of cultural property.   In 1947, the focus on private looted art evolved through active research of rightful owners and acquisitions of looted art by museums for safekeeping.  Many years later, in 1997, the ‘Cellule de récupération des biens spoliés’ was created.  After the 1998 Washington Conference, Belgium took a number of steps to intensify the search for spoliated owners and their descendants with the creation of the Buysse Commission.  It did not, however, create a formal panel to oversee the return of looted art such as were set up at that time by Germany, France, Austria, the Netherlands and the UK.  Nevertheless a database was eventually established, which can be consulted online through the Looted Art website at https://lootedart.belgium./endatabase-unrecovered-works-of-art-looted-during-war-belgium.

Two earlier cases of restitution in Belgium may warrant additional mention.

In 2009, a painting ‘Young girl in a Blue Dress’ by Belgian artist Anto Carte was restituted to the Dorville family during a ceremony at the Jewish museum in Brussels.  The Dorville family had survived the war by hiding in the Belgian countryside but most of its art collection had disappeared. Missing since the war, the Carte painting had been located through the Art Loss Register at an art dealer in Long Island and its recovery involved the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the US.

Another case involves a watercolour by Félicien Rops, currently held at the Belgian National Library, known to have belonged to a Jewish family and looted during the war.  The Library argues that the work was purchased in good faith from an art dealer in Paris.  At the time of writing, results of the negotiation between the Library and the Rops heirs are unknown.

Like many countries in Europe, Belgium is now facing an equally challenging issue: the return of artifacts acquired during the colonial era.  The Africa Museum in Tervuren, a Brussels suburb, holds over 180,000 African objects.  Of these, the Brussels Times reports that it is estimated that 1% is known to have been acquired illegally, 58% legally and 40% require inquiries into the manner of their transfer to Belgium.

In 2021, Belgium put together a multi-disciplinary Task Force to address the issue of the vast colonial collections found in museums as well as in private collections.  The work was presented to the country’s State Secretary for Economic Recovery and Strategic Investments Thomas Dermine. Underlying the work of the Task Force was the acknowledgment that a large number of artifacts had been acquired in a context of deep structural inequality.  The subsequent Report, which stresses the importance of ethical considerations as opposed to a strictly legalistic approach, can be found here.

The Report highlights the diversity of artifacts, linked to the presence in the former Belgian Congo of different groups of inhabitants with varying cultural and religious practices.  It enumerates the various individuals who would have acquired such material, such as military and colonial employees, missionaries, scientists, researchers and medical professionals, thus explaining the variety of ‘colonial’ cultural objects located in Belgium today.  The Report considers a number of legal or quasi-legal instruments, such as the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, the ICOM Code of Ethics of 2004, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007.  The Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of 1998 are also mentioned at length, although the Report draws necessary distinctions between Nazi-looted art and colonial-era objects, particularly as to the length of the period concerned, and the nature of the artifacts under question.

The recommendations of the report can be summarized as follows:

  • To establish a comprehensive overview of all colonial collections in Belgium;
  • To improve and develop provenance research;
  • To improve communication and cooperation with communities of origin;
  • To determine ‘the context of origin’ of objects, as well as ‘the circumstances in which objects left their communities of production and use.’


Finally the Report recommends the creation of an independent Advisory Committee and of an independent and interdisciplinary body of experts on provenance research.

Perhaps as an attempt to draw a thematic comparison between Nazi-looted art and colonial collections – or at the the very least as a neat way to conclude the present article – the Royal Museums of Fine Arts have dedicated two rooms to such parts of their collections: one on Nazi loot and another on collections from a colonial context.  These exhibitions will be on display until March 2023.