Beaching a Boat, Brighton 1824 by John Constable
The Tate has been ordered to return an oil painting by John Constable which was looted from a Hungarian collector by the Nazis during the Second World War.
A committee of government-appointed experts said the 1824 work, called Beaching A Boat, Brighton, has been stolen "by the Germans in 1944 or early 1945" and smuggled out of wartime Hungary.
Their report found the Tate had "a moral obligation" to return the painting to the family of the original owner who died in 1958 having fled the Communist takeover of his country.
It is the first time that the gallery has had to return an artwork that had been stolen from its original owner during the Nazi-era.
The spoliation committee also sharply criticised the museum for not carrying out thorough research into the history of the oil painting, which was donated to the Tate in 1986 by an elderly private collector.
The painting had originally belonged to the Budapest aristocrat, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, a painter himself who amassed a sizeable collection of Old Masters and significant art works.
Hatvany’s heirs discovered two years ago that that the Constable had ended up at the Tate. In April last year, the submitted a formal claim to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s specialist committee.
Agnes Pereszetegi, the Budapest-based lawyer for Hatvany’s heirs, said that the family was “delighted” by the committee’s findings and looked forward to arranging its return.
Hatvany had bought Beaching a Boat, Brighton at a Paris auction in 1908. In 1942, with Budapest threatened by Allied bombing, he put many of his paintings in bank vaults for protection, although others remained in his two main residences.
Two years later, after the German invasion of Hungary, Hatvany went into hiding, where he remained until Soviet troops entered the country in February 1945. At that point, Red Army soldiers looted the bank vaults.
The painting emerged in London in 1962, when it was bought by a Mrs PM Rainsford, who was then in her seventies. That same year, it was owned by a Mr Meyer who sold it to the London dealer, Leger.
From there, it went to the Broadway Art Gallery in the Cotswolds, which sold it to Mrs Rainsford. According to the committee of experts, all involved in the painting’s sales in the UK appear to have acted in good faith.
The panel, set up by the government to examine Nazi-era spoliation claims and make recommendations, concluded that the Constable was with the Hungarian owner in 1944.
They said it was then “taken in the course of anti-Semitic persecution of the collector and his family by the German occupying forces either from one of his homes or from a bank vault”.
The heirs, the committee stated, “therefore have a strong moral claim for the restitution of the painting”.
The experts were highly critical of the Tate’s apparent failure to investigate properly the painting’s provenance.
It concluded the gallery was “under a moral obligation to pursue the possibility that the painting had been the object of spoliation”, adding it was “surprising” that Tate had not examined the work, since it had an unclear provenance after the war.
“It would not have been difficult to have made enquires of the Hungarian government, which included the painting on its official list of looted art from the late 1940s,” their report says.
The panel, chaired by Sir Donnell Deeny, also accused the Tate of withholding information about the work from the heirs, believed to be two daughters and a grandchild.
Their report says the Tate “asserts that it had ‘provided the Claimants with all the material relating to the specific issues they had raised’ but this makes it clear that there is material with which it has not provided them.
“If the Claimants wished to see it, they should surely have been able to do so.”
In a statement, the Tate said it was “pleased to follow the conclusions” of the panel.
It said it is to recommend to the gallery's trustees, when they meet in May, that the Constable should be returned to the claimants.