He Lost a Courbet Fleeing the Nazis. His Heirs Are Getting it Back.

Shortly before the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, a Jewish engineer from a prominent family fled his Paris home with his mother, abandoning their apartment in the city’s affluent 16th arrondissement.

Among the possessions they left behind was a 19th-century painting of a lush forest scene, with children playing under a canopy of trees. As the Nazis took over, the artwork — by Gustave Courbet, the French realist painter — was carried off and reserved for the collection of a top Nazi official, while the engineer, Robert Bing, joined the French Resistance, working to distribute clandestine newspapers on behalf of the movement.

A decade after it was stolen, the painting ended up at the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge, where it has remained since.

Now, following a decision by a British government panel, the painting is expected to be returned to the heirs of Bing, who died in 1993. The panel’s report, released on Tuesday, determined that the artwork had been looted by Nazis, as the family had claimed, and should be transferred from the university’s collection.

“This is a deliberate seizure by the German authorities from a Jewish citizen of France with the diversion of the work of art to Nazi leaders,” the United Kingdom’s Spoliation Advisory Panel wrote in its decision. “We are satisfied that the heirs of the owner of the painting have a strong claim to restitution.”

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The report noted that, while it was recommending the restitution, it did not fault the museum for accepting the looted Courbet, which it received through a donation in 1951 by an Anglican priest, Eric Milner-White, who it said had also acted in good faith.

The Fitzwilliam Museum said in a statement after the announcement that “the Museum has cared for the work so that it can now be restored to the heirs of the original owners.”

The painting, listed in the museum’s collection as “La Ronde Enfantine,” and thought to have been painted around 1862, is among hundreds of thousands of pieces of art looted by the Nazis during World War II. The claim was brought to the panel in 2021 by the Mondex Corporation, a Toronto-based company that assists heirs who are seeking restitutions.

According to the company’s research, after the painting was looted it was transferred to the Jeu de Paume, a Paris museum that the Germans turned into a depository for their looted art. There, it was inventoried with the title “Waldlandschaft,” which translates from German into “forest landscape.” A handwritten note with the painting indicated it had been intended for the collection of Hermann Göring, a Nazi official who was convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials.

The painting’s precise location in the immediate aftermath of the war had been uncertain, the panel’s report noted, until 1951, when a London art dealership acquired it from a Swiss dealer. Reverend Milner-White then purchased the work and immediately donated it to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

After leaving his home, Bing served as the assistant to Henri Frenay, a French Resistance leader who became an editor of underground newspapers that circulated in Nazi-occupied France. He was later arrested in Lyon, in 1942, and imprisoned until 1944, before the liberation of France later that year. He received the French Resistance Medal in 1945.

The heirs believe the Courbet was likely originally acquired by Robert Bing’s maternal grandmother who was an art collector and had been mentioned in correspondence by Courbet.

In deciding that Bing had been the legal owner of the work, the panel pointed to a newly discovered document, provided by the French government: a 1948 inventory of objects that listed what he said had been removed from his apartment by the German authorities. In that inventory, he listed an unframed painting by Courbet that had been taken from the apartment’s living room. Although Mr. Bing did not describe the subject of the painting, the panel wrote that it believed he had been referring to “La Ronde Enfantine.”

“It is true to say that this conclusion is based, to some extent, on accepting the credibility of Robert Bing in his assertion in the inventory prepared for compensation,” the panel wrote. “Neither the Museum in this case nor our colleagues in France have advanced anything to call into question the credibility of Robert Bing.”

The report also noted that, while Bing had received more than 1.5 million francs in postwar compensation from the French government for items seized by the Germans, the painting had not been listed among them.

The Spoliation Advisory Panel was established by the U.K. government in 2000 to resolve claims from people, or their heirs, who lost property during the Nazi era that is now held in U.K. national collections. (Spoliation refers to the act of plundering or having been plundered.)

The heirs seeking restitution include the wife and son of Robert Bing’s deceased nephew. Their representative, James Palmer, the founder of the Mondex Corporation, called the British government and the Fitzwilliam Museum “exemplary in their proactive, respectful and moral treatment of this restitution claim.”

The panel’s report did not place any value on the painting, and Mondex Corporation said it had not conducted a formal appraisal of its value.

If the painting is sold, the distribution of its value could become complicated.

After his death, Bing’s estate transferred it to his wife, who died months later. Forty percent of her estate was then bequeathed to her niece, the report noted, meaning that if the painting were to be sold, a portion of the revenue would legally belong to her niece’s children. The children had not responded to communications from the panel, the report said.

Mr. Palmer said the family had not yet decided whether to sell the painting.

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