31 January 2014
Journalist Geert Sels of Belgian newspaper De Standaard has written a series of articles focusing on the 331 looted artworks in Belgian museums from identified or non-identified Jewish provenance. His source is a 2008 report from the Buysse Commission
. All major museums are holding these paintings, by artists such as Jan Denens, Pieter II Brueghel, Lovis Corinth and Frits Van den Berghe.
Sels reported that only 9% of works sent back to Belgium after the war were returned to their rightful owners. One third of the recuperated items were quickly auctioned, with little research being undertaken to identify the owners. More than half of them (639 in total) were divided among 15 museums, including major works by Jacob Jordaens, Jan Metsys, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden and Lucas Cranach. Most of these works were acquired by the Nazis on the Belgian art market. Belgium declared these work to be state owned since it was deemed illegal to have had transactions with the Nazi occupiers. Law professors doubt if that is per se true, and say that each case should be studied individually.
De Standaard criticised Belgian policy on Nazi looted art, which is passive and sticks to the principle of waiting for a ‘knock on the door’. The country has no public databases. Information on museum objects without a secure provenance is not published. The recommendations of the Buysse Commission have scarcely been addressed.
Belgium does have a non-public database with information on 4,500 items, located in the Prime Minister's Chancellery. After the articles in the press, the Office of the Prime Minister said they will look into how they can make the information public. The government also reacted by saying that of the 331 dubious art objects, only two paintings are art looted from Jewish owners. It minimized the importance of 292 Islamic, Chinese, Greek and Roman objects in the Royal Museum of Art and History as being 'minor works'. They were looted and brought back from the depots in Nikolsburg and Schloss Kogl. About these 292 objects the 2008 report was nevertheless very sharp: 'The museum added the pieces to its inventory and didn’t undertake one single effort to identify the owners'. The report also said that there are several dubious paintings of which the owner is unknown.
In the same series of articles, De Standaard revealed that the Heulens Collection in the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, donated in 1988 and on permanent display, has a questionable history. The collection contains work by Pieter II Brueghel, Jan Brueghel, Jan Provost, Gillis Mostaert and Lucas van Uden. Donor Frans Heulens had been praised for his ‘public spirit’, but the archives show he was deeply involved in the Nazi art-circuit. He was involved in more than ten transactions with the art dealer Walter Paech; he did business with Andreas Hofer; and, with two others, gave Hermann Göring a painting for his fiftieth birthday. Following the newspaper article, museum director Michel Draguet announced that the museum will look for appropriate ways to distance itself from the collection. Possible solutions are text information or by granting the collection less grandeur in a more modest setting.