Second World War Provenance Study

Research into the provenance of artworks

The Legend of St Quentin

When cataloguing a museum’s collection, it is important to check and document the provenance of artworks and heritage objects. Unfortunately, this is not always straightforward: important information has often gone unrecorded or has been lost in the distant or recent past, due to conflict situations, for instance. M has a work of this kind in its collection, in the shape of the Legend of St Quentin. The painting was saved from destruction in Germany by the so-called Monuments Men, but having been returned to Belgium in 1945, could not be restored to its rightful owner.

Plundered and lost cultural goods

During the Second World War, many artistic and cultural works from public and private collections were abandoned, robbed and/or stolen. It happened in Belgium too. At the same time, a large-scale trade in art arose, primarily in Western and Central Europe. Many cultural goods were tracked down after the Second World War, recovered and returned to their rightful owners, heirs or states. The origins of all the recovered cultural goods were not equally clear, however: it could not always be determined with certainty whether they had been stolen or who the pre-war owners had been. Following the occupation and liberation, some of them found their way into public collections or into private hands.

During the Washington Conference in 1998, Belgium endorsed the principles applying to cultural goods that had been looted by the Nazis and subsequently lost. The Belgian museums and cultural institutions cooperated with the Jewish Property Research Committee and the Restitution Committee to determine the origin of these cultural goods. This related to artworks that might have been subject to National Socialist theft or purchase and post-war restitution in and by Belgium.

The investigation took several years. On conclusion of these enquiries and for reasons of transparency, it was decided to create a database of artworks of unidentified origin or incomplete provenance to obtain more information regarding their acquisition history. The national database focuses primarily on paintings and sculptures that ended up in museum collections after the Second World War. The research in question occurs in close collaboration between the Regions, the Federal Government and the relevant institutions and museums.

The Legend of St Quentin

There is a painting in the M collection too that could not be restored to the rightful owner following its return to Belgium in 1945, namely the Legend of St Quentin. Any information that can clarify the history of the painting in the pre-war and war years would therefore be welcome. Do you have any information about this work? If so, feel free to contact the Collections department at M via e-mail or post. If you would like to know more about what's going on in this fascinating painting, be sure to read the detailed file on the ‘Erfgoedplus’ website (Dutch only). At the bottom of this page, you can also find an overview of all the details, including its maker, dimensions and provenance.

Malice not always involved

We should point out that wartime conditions are not the only cause of gaps in an artwork’s history. The key elements hindering the tracking of the history of artworks and historical goods in museum collections are the lack of documents and records, but also other factors, such as thefts or undocumented purchases, donations or exchanges. In other words, gaps in the provenance of an artwork are not always the result of malicious behaviour. 

The Legend of St Quentin



Double-sided painting representing the healing of a poor blind man and the condemnation of Saint Quentin (front), and the horrifying torture scene (back)


Anonymous painter (Southern Netherlands), previously attributed to Jan II Van Rillaer (Leuven) and Bernard Van Orley (Brussels)


Oil paint on oak panel


107 x 96 cm; max. 125,5 x 114 x 7,4 cm incl. frame


M - Museum Leuven, inv. S/9/O (formerly Stedelijk Museum Vanderkelen-Mertens)


Sold in Brussels on 20 June 1928 in late Amedée Prouvost’s collection sale, attributed to Jan Van Rillaer; mentioned in the collection of Brussels art dealer De Heuvel in 1937 as work by Bernard Van Orley; later in the collection of art dealer Léon Seyffers (1885–1944/45) on rue de la Régence in Brussels; acquired in 1941 by prospector Kajetan Mühlmann; sold by Mühlmann December 1941 to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for RM 8.000 (label on frame: [...] Mühlmann, Berlin. Dec. 1941, KG 889.); transferred with Göring’s art collection in 1945 from Carinhall to Berchtesgaden, recovered there by the Monuments, Fine Art & Archives Division (Berchtesgaden no. 123); transferred to the Munich Central Collection Point on 25 July 1945 (Munich no. 5161); repatriated to Belgium on 10 October 1946 (economic recuperation department no. A.79); exhibition Chefs-d’œuvre récupérés en Allemagne November–December 1948, Palais des Beaux-Arts Brussels; long-term loan by the Belgian State to the Leuven museum in 1951.


Collection de feu Amedée Prouvost, sales cat., Galerie Fievez, Brussels, 20.06.1928, p. 38 and pl. XXXIII (copy in M Collection, inv. V/75/5759); Bulletin de la Société Royale d'Archéologie de Bruxelles, year 1936–1937, p. 79; F. Beaudouin e.a., In Duitsland herwonnen kunstwerken = Chefs-d’œuvre récupérés en Allemagne, exhibition cat., Brussels, 1948, p. 31, no. 37; Geert Sels, Kunst voor Das Reich. Het wedervaren van schilderijen in onze musea, focus section in: OKV, year 55 (2007) no. 1 (attributed to Jan Van Rillaer, incomplete data).