SINCE 1998, WHEN 44 NATIONS SIGNED THE "WASHINGTON PRINCIPLES", ITALY WAS PARTY TO AN INTERNATIONAL EFFORT OF MUSEUMS TO ENABLE JUST AND FAIR SOLUTIONS FOR RIGHTFUL HEIRS OF ARTWORK PLUNDERED DURING THE HOLOCAUST. THAT WOULD INCLUDE OPENESS AND TRANSPARENCY OF ARCHIVES, RESEARCH, IDENTIFICATION AND PUBLICATION OF PAINTINGS WITH GAPS IN OWNERSHIP DURING THE WWII ERA
WHY IS ITALY 12 YEARS BEHIND FRANCE, AUSTRIA, GERMANY, HOLLAND?
DOUG BLACKBURN of the Tallahasee Democrat filed this extraordinary story....
Who could have guessed that a Hollywood-worthy tale of international intrigue was unfolding behind the scenes at a local art museum?
But that's exactly what was happening during the final weeks of a just-closed exhibit at The Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science.
Federal officials have ordered the Brogan not to return one of 50 paintings on loan from a museum in Italy because it is believed to have been stolen by Nazis during World War II.
U.S. authorities are working with the Brogan and the Italian government to determine the owners of the painting, and what to do with it, said Chucha Barber, the Brogan's CEO.
The breathtaking 473-year-old painting, "Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue," is by the Italian Renaissance artist Girolamo Romano. It was part of the 50-piece exhibit, Baroque Painting in Lombardy from Pinacoteca di Brera, which went up March 18 and was disassembled last weekend.
Barber, working with a curator from the Pinacoteca museum in Milan, intends to put the Romano painting back on display as the Brogan continues a crucial fundraising campaign. A little more than two months ago, the museum embarked on a five-month, $500,000 capital campaign needed to meet day-to-day expenses and payroll. The museum invested heavily to bring the Baroque exhibit to the Brogan.
"I see this as a teachable moment regarding the value of museums and museum objects," Barber told the Tallahassee Democrat in an exclusive interview. "It's also one family's incredible story about the atrocities of the Holocaust."
Barber first learned that the painting may have been stolen by Nazis when she was contacted by Pamela Marsh, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, on July 21. Barber did not know how Marsh came to suspect the painting was tied to Nazi plunder.
It is believed that the Nazi-sympathetic French Vichy government seized and sold the work in question, when the Gentili family — the Jewish family that owned the masterwork — fled Nazi occupation during the war.
Barber has since received a phone call from Lionel Salem, a grandson of the painting's owner who lives in London. He thanked her for taking care of the painting.
Barber said she was told by Marsh's office that the painting cannot be returned to Italy until the ownership disputes are resolved.
Giuseppe Gentili's grandchildren have taken legal steps to find and reclaim works lost during the Nazi occupation. In 1999, an appeals court forced the Louvre to return five paintings to the Gentili family.
Attempts to reach Marsh were unsuccessful.
Barber did not know the appraised value for Romano's painting, but said it was insured for 1.5 million Euros, or about $2.5 million. A master appraiser from Christie's in New York recently visited the Brogan to examine "Christ Carrying the Cross," Barber said.
The entire Baroque exhibition that was on display at the Brogan is valued at more than $30 million. Barber estimated that it cost the museum about $425,000 to bring the exhibition to Tallahassee.
Untold millions of dollars worth of art, currency, jewelry, gold and other cultural artifacts were stolen by the Nazis throughout western Europe from 1933 to the end of World War II. Many objects have been recovered, and there are ongoing efforts to identify and return artworks such as the one at the Brogan.
Ron Yrabedra, a professor emeritus in art education at Florida A&M University, said there are numerous cases pending worldwide.
"It's not something that's unheard of because it's happened at so many major museums," Yrabedra said. "The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) has had this happen, the Getty (in Los Angeles) has had this happen."
Earliest records about the Brogan's painting indicate that it dates back to around 1538, when it belonged to the Antonio and Cesare Averoldi collection. On June 4, 1914, it was put up for auction in Paris and bought by Gentili.
Gentili died in 1940 and his children fled to Canada, spending the duration of the war in Canada and the United States. Other family members, including Gentili's sister, died in concentration camps. The surviving family now lives throughout Europe.
Barbara Goldstein, president of the Holocaust Education Resource Council, was thrilled to learn about the story behind the painting at the Brogan.
"This is a great educational tool," she said. "I would tie this in with the movie 'The Rape of Europa.'
"It's a huge issue legally. How does someone trace an artwork like this, and what is its value? This is a great story.
DOUG BLACKBURN of the Tallahasee Democrat filed this story. It appeared online at www.news-press.com.