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U.S. Returns Painting to Germany

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. government returned to a German art museum Tuesday a 16th century painting, valued at $5 million, that was apparently looted by advancing U.S. troops in the closing days of World War II.

The painting, an oil on wood portrait of Jesus Christ by the Venetian early Renaissance master Jacopo de’ Barbari, was handed over to German officials in New York.

The action by the U.S. Customs Service represents the flip side of an international campaign to recover art treasures stolen by the Nazis from Jewish collectors.

“We are proud to help return a valuable national treasure to its rightful owner,” U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said in a statement. “Traffickers in stolen art won’t find a safe haven in America. No matter how long the art has been missing, we will continue to pursue it.”

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According to the Customs Service, the painting, which dates from about 1503, was stolen from Schwartzburg Castle in Rudolstadt, Germany. It had been sent there for safekeeping by the Weimar Museum, which had displayed it since 1838. An unidentified U.S. soldier is believed to have taken the painting sometime in the spring of 1945.

U.S. forces took Rudolstadt and the surrounding area but later turned the territory over to the Soviet army. It became part of East Germany.

There was no record of the painting after the war until 1972, when Msgr. Thomas Campbell, a Roman Catholic priest in Queens, gave it to Sister Rose Mary Phol, an art teacher at a school affiliated with the church. Campbell, now 85, told customs investigators that he does not know how the painting came into his hands, but that it may have been a gift from a parishioner.

Phol held the painting for 26 years and apparently did not realize its value. At one point, according to the Customs Service, she covered the original portrait with a print cut from a magazine.

In June 1998, Phol took the painting to Frank Vaccaro, a furniture and art restorer, and asked him to refurbish the wooden frame. The Customs Service said Vaccaro, who had researched the painting and discovered that it was extremely valuable, returned the frame to Phol without the painting, telling her that he had discarded it.

Vaccaro then contacted the German museum and demanded a $100,000 finder’s fee for its return. The museum, which at the time valued the painting at between $150,000 and $400,000, refused to pay. It solicited the help of the U.S. government in recovering the painting, which recently was appraised at $5 million.

The Customs Service seized the painting from Vaccaro on Nov. 8, 1999; extortion charges were filed but later dropped.

Works of art probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more were seized during World War II. Many were taken through systematic looting, first by the Nazi government and later by the Soviets, who classified art taken from the German government as “war reparations.”

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In recent years, a small portion of the looted art has been tracked down and returned. Last week, the National Gallery of Art in Washington announced that it was returning “Still Life With Fruit and Game” by Flemish artist Frans Snyders to the Jewish family that owned it before the war.

Returning looted artwork is a difficult task because much of it--like the De’ Barbari painting of Christ--has changed hands many times and is now owned by people who had nothing to do with the theft.

Nevertheless, in recent years the Customs Service has seized works of art valued at more than $30 million.


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