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Restitution of Nazi-looted Painting

The painting "Portrait de jeune femme assise" (Portrait of a Seated Young Woman) by Thomas Couture has been returned to the heirs of French politician and resistance leader Georges Mandel, from whom it was confiscated during WW2. This is the final chapter in a fascinating restitution story, where the son of notorious Nazi regime art-dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt was caught in possession of thousands of looted artworks during a raid on his apartment in 2012. Gurlitt traded art confiscated from Jewish families, which had been deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis; 300 of these had been shown in the 1937 ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition. The treasure trove discovered by investigators include works by Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Klee. Couture’s painting is the fifth to be returned so far; the restitution process can take years due to an array of complex legal, moral and historical issues. A testimony from Mandel’s partner led to the breakthrough in proving the painting to be looted; they specified the location of a small tear which happened when the Nazis confiscated the painting. A rigorous examination by restitution experts carried out by the Gurlitt Provenance Research Project found the tear under layers of restoration work. Last Tuesday culture minister Monika Grütters ceremoniously returned the painting to Mandel’s heirs. However, there are many more Gurlitt artworks with questionable provenance to be investigated and returned to rightful owners. The question remains as to whether Kunstmuseum Bern will hold on to works bequeathed by Gurlitt’s son in a surprising turn of events when he died in 2014.


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