The Monuments Men

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Paul B. Coremans ( 1908-1965 )

Paul B. Coremans was born in Borgerhout, Belgium in 1908. After earning a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry from the Free University of Brussels in 1932, he embarked on a successful career as an art conservator. He was invited by Jean Capart, renowned Egyptologist and chief curator of the Royal Museums of Art and History, to establish a laboratory and organize the museum’s photo documentation system. Under Coremans’s hard work and dedication, the center became the Royal Institute for the Study and Conservation of Belgium’s Artistic Heritage (Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique de Belgique). Coremans served as Director of the Institute for many years.

During World War II, Capart recruited Coremans to supervise a project to photograph the thousands of monuments and artworks in Belgium. In addition to creating a photographic record of Belgium’s cultural heritage, the project provided its volunteers with the opportunity to escape mandatory Nazi employment. Following the Allied victory, Coremans worked with the U.S. Forces, European Theater (USFET) Mission to Belgium and Luxembourg. As Chief of Laboratories of the Belgian Directory of Museums, he was integral to the restitution of art looted from Belgium. In November 1945 he undertook a month-long trip to numerous salt mines and collecting points in Germany and Austria to inspect the methods used to protect paintings and other works of art against physico-chemical charges. While at the Munich Central Collecting Point, he assisted fellow Belgian Monuments Man Lt. Raymond Lemaire with his work identifying and conserving looted works of art. As a result of his service as a Monuments Man, Coremans published a handbook entitled, La protection scientifique des œuvres d'art en temps de guerre; l'expérience européenne pendant les années 1939 à 1945 (1946).

Also in 1946, Coremans joined a group later dubbed the Coremans Commission, which was established by the government of the Netherlands to scientifically determine the legitimacy of a group of paintings suspected of being forgeries. Coremans served as expert witness to the prosecution during the trial of Hans van Meegeren, who was convicted of forging Old Master paintings (most notoriously Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery, supposedly painted by Jan Vermeer, which belonged to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering). Coremans documented his experiences in the book entitled Van Meegeren’s Faked Vermeers and de Hooghs: A Scientific Examination, published in 1949.

After the war, Coremans was extremely influential in the international preservation community. In addition to working with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to develop the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, he also served as a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). In 1950 he worked with fellow Monuments Man and conservator George Stout to found the International Institute for Conservation of History and Artistic Works (IIC). In 1951, he and an international advisory committee supervised the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece, which had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II and found in the salt mine at Altaussee.

Paul Coremans died in 1965. Founded in his honor, The Paul Coremans Endowment Fund in Art Conservation Research at the University of Delaware was the first doctoral program in art conservation research in North America.