An idyllic forest scene by Gustave Courbet that was looted from a Paris apartment in 1941 will be returned to the family of its original owners, according to a report by the Art Newspaper.
The painting, La Ronde Enfantine (1862), also known as Beneath the Trees at Port-Bertaud: Children Dancing, has been part of the collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for years, courtesy of the Very Reverend Eric Milner-White, who donated the work after he purchased it in 1951.
A report by the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel—which resolves claims from those who “lost possession of cultural property during the Nazi era,” specifically work that is currently held in British institutions—dates the painting’s theft to May 5, 1941, when the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (ERR) stole the painting from Robert Léo Michel Lévy Bing’s Paris apartment.
The ERR was a wing of Nazi Party charged with stealing and destroying Jewish cultural property throughout Nazi-occupied territories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum described the ERR’s mandate as “the cultural counterpart of the physical destruction of the Jewish people.”
An investigation by the Art Newspaper published in May of last year found that La Ronde Enfantine likely wound up in the hands of Adolf Hitler’s deputy and the creator of the Gestapo, Hermann Göring.
After the war, the painting was in the possession of the Swiss art dealer Kurt Meissner, who later sold it to the London art dealers Arthur Tooth & Sons, which in turn sold the work to Milner-White. According to the Art Newspaper, the Fitzwilliam was unaware of the painting’s dark past, though the museum did research the painting’s provenance following the donation.
“The museum has some 500,000 objects in its collection, including around 2,000 paintings. At the time of the gift there would have been little to arouse suspicion. Not only was The Very Reverend Eric Milner-White an Anglican Priest but he was a generous donor of some 50 paintings to public collections in the United Kingdom and had been awarded both the [military decoration] DSO (unusually for a clergyman) and a CBE,” the Spoliation Panel report says.
The Fitzwilliam said it will follow the panel’s recommendations, and that the painting will be restituted to the Mondex Corporation, an organization that facilitates the repatriation of Nazi-looted art, on behalf of the heirs of Robert Bing, according to a statement sent to ARTnews.
The museum added that the Spoliation Panel’s “recommendation implies no criticism of the Museum or the original donor, The Very Reverend Eric Milner-White, who have acted honourably and in accordance with the standards prevailing at the time of acquisition and since. The museum has cared for the work so that it can now be restored to the heirs of the original owners.”