Spoliation Advisory Panel Recommends Return of Courbet Painting to Original Owners

Posted on: May 5, 2023 by

The UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel, which handles claims relating to lost possession of cultural property during the Nazi era, has not published a new report in seven years. As such, their most recent recommendation, published on 28 March 2023, is particularly worthy of note. The Panel has recommended that a landscape painting by leading French realist Gustave Courbet, entitled La Ronde Enfantine and in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge since 1951, be restituted to the heirs of the original owner. The claim was brought by Mondex Corporation acting for the heirs of Robert Bing, a Jewish man who at one stage was a member of the French Resistance.

La Ronde Enfantine, Gustave Courbet, c. 1862

The claim

The claimant asserted that the painting was seized by two members of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) on 5 May 1941 from the apartment of Robert Bing. In determining ownership, the claimant’s research suggested that the painting could be identified in two sale catalogues, dated 1863 and 1865 respectively, and that it was likely to have been acquired by Robert Bing’s maternal grandmother. When Bing’s flat was seized, a file recording the looting included reference to a painting described as “Courbet signed Waldlandschaft” (Waldlandschaft meaning “forest landscape”, thus most likely referring to La Ronde Enfantine).

After the seizure of the painting, it was held for the benefit of Nazi art collector Hermann Goering and at one stage was proposed as part of an exchange involving Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister. Immediately after the war, the painting’s whereabouts were unknown. It reappeared again in the inventory of a London art dealership in 1951, having been acquired from Swiss art dealer Kurt Meissner, who is mentioned in the Roberts Commission Card File on Art Looting Suspects. On 19 November 1951, the painting was sold to The Very Reverend Eric Milner-White who subsequently donated it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in memory of his father.

Upon being alerted to the spoliation claim, the museum responded by instigating research into the painting’s provenance and it accepted that a painting of similar appearance was once in Goering’s collection.

Four key issues remained for the Panel to address:

  • whether La Ronde Enfantine in the collection of the museum was the same painting taken from Robert Bing’s apartment. Based on the evidence of the claimant, the Panel determined that it was, indeed, the same painting.
  • whether the heirs had a valid claim to restitution or other remedy. The Panel stated that it was “a deliberate seizure by the German authorities” and that there was no reason for the seizure other than Robert Bing being Jewish. As such, the heirs had a strong claim to restitution.
  • who was the owner of the painting at the time of seizure? This was a key issue for the Panel and they considered the matter at some length. Despite confusion over whether Bing or his mother was the owner at the relevant time, a newly discovered document obtained from the French Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation including reference to an unframed Courbet painting in an inventory of objects stated by Bing to have been taken by the German authorities was persuasive in Bing’s favour. In accordance with the direction set out in the Panel’s Terms of Reference to act on the balance of probabilities, it concluded that Robert Bing had become the owner of the painting during his mother’s lifetime.
  • what remedy, if any, was appropriate? Referring to the circumstances mentioned above, the Panel stated that, in line with its previous approaches, restitution of the painting was the only appropriate remedy.

The Panel then turned to the issue of post-war compensation. A certificate produced by the claimant showed that Robert Bing received payments from the French State, but the certificate did not specifically reference the painting. Having considered previous reports in which the issue of post-war compensation had been raised, the Panel determined that in the present case, the lack of clear reference to the painting in the assessment for post-war compensation suggested that no substantial part of the compensation was for the loss of the painting. Therefore, the Panel stated it would be “inappropriate to qualify or restrict the recommendation of restitution of this work of art”.

The Report concluded by recommending that La Ronde Enfantine be restituted to Mondex Corporation on behalf of the heirs of Robert Bing. The Panel emphasised that no blame should be attached to the museum or donor, Eric Milner-White, who they considered to have acted honourably and in line with the requirements at the time of acquisition and since. The Report closed with the assertion that “The Museum has cared for the work so that it can now be restored to the heirs of the original owners.”

Image Credits:

Gustave Courbet, La Ronde Enfantine, Fitzwilliam Museum via Wikimedia Commons – public domain