Three Rubens Masterpieces to Remain at Courtauld Advisory Panel Decides

Peter Paul Rubens The Conversion of St. Paul Courtauld Institute in London

In a recent ruling, the UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel has upheld the retention of three significant paintings by Peter Paul Rubens within the esteemed collection of the Courtauld Institute in London. This decision follows a thorough review of multiple ownership claims for the contested artworks.

The paintings under scrutiny include “St Gregory the Great with Ss Maurus and Papianus and St. Domitilla with Ss Nereus and Achilleus” (1606-07), “The Conversion of St. Paul” (c.1610-12), and “The Bounty of James I Triumphing Over Avarice,” initially destined for the ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall (c. 1632).

Once part of the extensive collection of German banker Franz Wilhelm Koenigs, these artworks became entangled in a complex web of financial dealings during the tumultuous 1930s. Koenigs leveraged his art holdings to secure loans from the Dutch Bank N.V. Bankierskantoor Lisser & Rosenkranz. However, the Bank’s voluntary liquidation in 1940, before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, led to the transfer of ownership of the Rubens paintings and others to the Bank.

Peter Paul Rubens within the collection of the Courtauld Institute in London.
Peter Paul Rubens within the collection of the Courtauld Institute in London. Left: St. Gregory the Great with Ss Maurus and Papianus and St. Domitilla with Ss. Nereus and Achilleus Right: The Bounty of James 1 Triumphing Over Avarice

Subsequently, the artworks were acquired by the art historian Count Antoine Seilern, who transported them to England and generously bestowed them upon the Courtauld Institute. In the ensuing decades, various heirs of the Bank’s shareholders have sought to reclaim ownership of these prized masterpieces.

Among the claimants is Christine Koenigs, granddaughter of Franz Wilhelm Koenigs, who has persistently pursued the return of the paintings through both UK and Dutch advisory panels. Acting on behalf of seven heirs, she bases her claim on Koenigs’s fractional shares in the Bank. Another claimant, Mr. Gal Flörsheim, asserts dual claims as the sole heir of Salomon Jakob Flörsheim, a principal shareholder in the Bank, and as a co-liquidator of the Bank alongside Mr. Dolev.

In justifying the retention of the Rubens paintings in the UK, the Panel contended that Koenigs forfeited his rights to the artworks when he employed them as collateral for a loan, a decision unrelated to the subsequent Nazi invasion. Moreover, the Panel highlighted Koenigs’s prior loaning of the paintings to the Museum Boymans, indicating his intention for them to be publicly displayed. In light of this, the Panel concluded that the current exhibition of the paintings at the Courtauld aligns with the presumed wishes of Franz Wilhelm Koenigs.

This ruling by the Spoliation Advisory Panel underscores the complexities inherent in restitution of cultural artefacts lost during periods of upheaval. It offers a nuanced perspective on the rightful ownership and public accessibility of historically significant artworks.

The UK’s Spoliation Advisory Panel is an independent body established by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport in 2000. Its primary purpose is to provide non-binding recommendations on claims concerning cultural objects lost during the Nazi era, specifically between 1933 and 1945.

The panel consists of legal, art historical, and other experts who evaluate claims brought forward by individuals or institutions seeking the return of cultural property that may have been looted, confiscated, or otherwise improperly acquired during the specified period. These claims often involve complex legal and ethical considerations, including issues of provenance, ownership, and restitution.

While the recommendations of the Spoliation Advisory Panel are not legally binding, they carry significant weight in guiding decisions made by institutions, governments, and individuals regarding the restitution or retention of disputed cultural artefacts. The panel aims to facilitate fair and just resolutions to these sensitive and often deeply entrenched disputes, balancing the interests of claimants with the principles of cultural heritage preservation and public access.

Top Photo: Peter Paul Rubens The Conversion of St. Paul Courtauld Institute in London

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