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Goodbye to a much-loved painting

This month the Kröller-Müller Museum will be saying goodbye to a painting that has been in its care for the past 66 years. The painting is Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s Jeune femme au puits (Young Woman by a Well), which dates from the 1860s. We are sorry to have to part with it, for it is a very fine painting and one that has been highly popular with our visitors, but we are above all pleased that it can at last be returned to its rightful owners.

The painting was bought in 1942 from the Berlin art dealer H. W. Lange, using money from a fund set up the previous year by the then rulers of the Netherlands. The purpose of the fund was to help the museum purchase new works for its collection after three of its paintings, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Baldung Grien and Barthel Bruyn the Elder, had been requisitioned for display in the Führermuseum in Linz. The fund made this appear to be an exchange rather than the confiscation it really was.

After the war, the museum realised that works bought using money from the fund might well be of dubious origin. In the course of the 1940s, two works were returned to their original Jewish owners, who had given them up under duress. In 1988, in response to an initiative by the Netherlands Museum Association, the Kröller-Müller Museum attempted to trace the origins of various works acquired during the period 1940-1948 on the basis of the information then available. At the time we were unable to determine whether the Corot painting had changed hands in a questionable manner, although we did know it had belonged to the
Hamburg Jewish banker George Eduard Behrens in the 1930s. As a result of changes in Dutch government policy on the restitution of items of cultural value since 2000, as well as increased international interest in the matter, new claimants have come forward. Further research by the Restitutions Committee has confirmed that the original owner parted with the work involuntarily. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science has decided that the painting should be returned to Behrens’ heirs.

A museum is a place where material testimony to the past is kept for a specific social purpose. The museum’s task is to put such testimony to the best possible use in the public domain. The Kröller-Müller Museum looks after works of art that belong to us all, and is inevitably hindered in this task if the legal status of any part of its collection is in doubt. We therefore greatly welcome the minister’s decision. The Corot painting will now return to the bosom of the family it was stolen from, and will undoubtedly acquire a new place in the public domain at the some time in the future.

Evert van Straaten