In a remarkable turn of events, a Nazi-looted Baroque masterpiece that turned up on the art market five years ago was returned Friday to its owner, who plans to donate it to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The life-size figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria, painted in Genoa around 1615 by Bernardo Strozzi, was installed Monday in the third floor galleries for European art. The painting, valued at between $2.5 million and $3 million, is a promised gift to the museum, where it vaults to the top tier of paintings in LACMA’s collection.
It is highly unusual for a major painting plundered from a private party during wartime to be given to a museum upon restitution, rather than be sold to settle claims from multiple heirs.
The restitution of the Strozzi by an Italian court was made to Philippa Calnan, the original owner’s sole direct descendant. Calnan, a retired public affairs director at LACMA and the J. Paul Getty Trust, is making the gift to the museum.
The luxurious picture is a testament to Counter-Reformation fervor within the Catholic Church. The figure is painted in iridescent tones of pale violet, rose, creamy white and gold, accented with bursts of crimson and green and emerging in a blaze of clear light from a dark background. Against the rise of Protestant objections to the veneration of saints, the Council of Trent extolled the propaganda value of personifying sacred mysteries through the suffering and triumph of martyrs.
The painting is among Strozzi’s supreme early achievements. It disappeared after the 1943 Nazi occupation of Florence, one of nearly a dozen works stolen from the collection assembled by Charles A. Loeser, an American expatriate and heir to a Brooklyn department store fortune. Loeser moved to Italy in 1890 and died in 1928.
Ten years after Loeser’s death, prior to the outbreak of World War II, Mussolini’s fascist government passed a series of anti-Jewish “racial laws.” Loeser’s widow, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter left Florence before the German occupation, leaving behind valuable works of art restricted from leaving Italy. The painting vanished in April 1944, after the Nazi prefect set up headquarters in the family’s Villa Torri di Gattaia, located on the city’s highest hill.
The Times reported in September on Loeser’s bequest to the White House of eight paintings by French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, works that were hidden in Switzerland during the war. That gift was surreptitiously diverted to Washington’s National Gallery of Art, and the terms of the bequest remain unfulfilled.
The Strozzi was one of several Loeser collection works on the authoritative list of Nazi-plundered art compiled after the war by Rodolfo Siviero, an Italian art historian called “the 007 of art” for his work as an Allied secret agent. It is also recorded in Germany’s Lost Art Internet Database, established to track Nazi loot. The painting first surfaced around 2008 in Vienna, where it was sold by an unidentified Austrian collector.
Sotheby’s was approached about accepting the painting for auction, but research into its provenance, or history of ownership, identified its status as Nazi plunder. The auction house notified Italian police and contacted Calnan, Loeser’s granddaughter.
The painting had by then been jointly bought by Marco Voena and Fabrizio Moretti, Old Master art dealers with galleries in Milan, Florence, London and New York. Calnan was blocked by the Italian courts from obtaining an export license for what was deemed a national treasure. She appealed the ruling.
At his death, her grandfather had made a bequest of Renaissance paintings and furniture to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. In exchange, the Italian government agreed to allow his heirs to export any remaining works from his collection for a period equal to the lifetime of his daughter, Matilda, plus two years. Matilda Loeser Calnan died in La Jolla in 2000, at age 87.
The court ruled that the time limit on the Strozzi’s export had expired. Calnan’s appeal argued that the unknown whereabouts of Nazi plunder for more than 60 years made timelier export impossible. Her request for an export license immediately followed the painting’s rediscovery.
The license was finally granted in the fall. Legal restitution of Nazi plunder that should have been a simple administrative transaction instead required nearly five years of litigation and tens of thousands of euros in legal, storage and insurance costs.
An e-mail inquiry to Voena and Moretti seeking comment was not returned prior to press time. The painting was shipped from Milan last week.
Painted when Strozzi was in his early 30s, the picture needs cleaning but appears to be in good condition, according to LACMA conservator Joseph Fronek. It shows the saint as a delicate, almost ethereal beauty, her sinuous body rising like a billow of evanescent smoke to a narrow oval head. Catherine’s porcelain fragility sets up a dramatic counterpoint to the heroic intellect and epic struggle described in her story.
A popular saint since the Middle Ages, Catherine of Alexandria was revered for her chastity, scholarly acumen and unshakable faith. Daughter of a pagan, she used her sharp debating skills to convert hundreds to Christianity, including the wife of 4th century Roman Emperor Maxentius.
Furious, Maxentius condemned Catherine to death on a torture device made from a spiked wheel. But when she touched the wheel it was claimed to have miraculously broken apart. Not to be denied, the emperor had Catherine beheaded. Ever since, the torture device has been commonly known as a Catherine wheel.
Strozzi shows her right foot firmly planted on a book, sign of a foundation in learning, while her left hand gathers up an entwined palm and mighty sword, symbols of her martyrdom. Sumptuous satin garments and jeweled body ornaments consecrate the Christian convert’s final victory over death.
At the lower left, echoing the palm frond’s tall curve diagonally opposite, the broken torture wheel is held upright by a hand poised with exaggerated gracefulness. Together, the firm but delicate hand and the brute wheel concentrate the dynamic triumph of faithful gentility over savage power that characterizes the picture as a whole.
Before turning to painting full-time, Strozzi was a cloistered Capuchin monk. (He’s sometimes known as Il Cappuccino or Il prete Genovese — the Genoese priest.) Genoa, the largest Italian seaport on the Mediterranean coast, was an important trading center for works of art and other goods. Strozzi had firsthand knowledge of many international artists, whose styles he incorporated into his paintings.
The compressed figure of St. Catherine shows theatrical side-lighting emerging from darkness, a format pioneered by the influential Roman painter Caravaggio. The elongated elegance of the figure suggests familiarity with the Mannerist style of French artist Jacques Bellange. The bravura brushwork reveals Strozzi’s lifelong admiration for the extravagant paintings of Antwerp’s Peter Paul Rubens, who worked in Genoa a few years before Strozzi painted his Catherine.
Two other versions of the Strozzi canvas, virtually identical in size and composition to the Loeser painting, are also known. One is in the Foundation E.G. Bührle, a Zurich museum, the other in the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. Baroque artists often made multiple versions of their most successful paintings in order to satisfy demand from avid patrons.
The Strozzi is one of two Loeser works looted by the Nazis to resurface. Last year, a gold-ground Sienese devotional altar by the Master of the Richardson Triptych (circa 1370-1415) was retrieved by the FBI from Moretti’s Manhattan gallery. Like the Strozzi, it was listed in the Lost Art database. In excellent condition given its age and tumultuous history, “The Virgin and Child Enthroned With Angels and Saints, the Redeemer and the Annunciation” is also on loan to LACMA.