The work by 19th-century French painter Thomas Couture had belonged to the Jewish politician Georges Mandel, and was identified due to a tiny hole in the canvas. Restitution to his heirs is in the works.
The “Portrait of a Sitting Young Woman” is one of some 1,400 works that German tax investigators found in 2012, stashed away in the Munich and Salzburg homes of Cornelius Gurlitt, who died two years later. He had inherited the collection from his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, a collector whom the Nazis hired to buy art for its museums or to sell for profit.
The vast collection includes works by such famous artists as Picasso, Dürer, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Beckmann and Matisse. So far, a total of six works from the estate are suspected to have been looted by the Nazis. Last February, a drawing by Adolph von Menzel was returned to the descendants of Elsa Cohen, who had been forced to sell it under duress in 1938.
The latest announcement by the “Gurlitt Provenance Research” project comes just as a double exhibition of the Gurlitt collection is to open – at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bern, Switzerland and the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Germany. The exhibitions reportedly are intended to help clear up lingering provenance questions.
Andrea Baresel-Brand, head of the research group, told the DPA press agency that the case was “particularly exciting, because our most important clue was a tiny, repaired hole in the canvas. it is highly likely that the painting comes from the collection of the former French minister Georges Mandel, whose family has requested its return.”
Mandel had made no secret of his opposition to the Nazis. During the German occupation of France, he was imprisoned and later shot by collaborating French militia.
After the war, his longtime life partner, the actor Béatrice Bretty, reported the loss of this painting among others. She wrote that this painting had a hole that had been repaired but was still visible. With this note in hand, the research team and technical experts made the identification.
Monika Grütters, German minister for Culture and Media, said in a statement that she hoped the work would be “returned quickly to the descendants of the original owners.”
The provenance research group is due to disband in December. Baresel-Brand told reporters they had done what they could to clear up all remaining questions within the given time. “There is currently no more source material available,” she said.