TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — U.S. authorities ended a more than 70-year-old art drama Wednesday by returning a 16th century masterpiece to a Jewish man's heirs who sought for years to reclaim the painting wrested away during World War II.
A grandson of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe listened in via teleconference from London as American authorities signed the documents transferring over the Baroque painting titled "Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue."
"You did right a wrong and we are very grateful for that," the grandson, Lionel Salem, told U.S. officials assembled in the federal courthouse in Tallahassee.
U.S. officials seized the painting last fall while waiting for a federal judge to rule on its ownership. After signing over custody on Wednesday to the family, the painting was given to representatives of Christie's, the art auction house.
The family announced that Christie's would sell the painting at an auction this June, saying the art house has estimated it could fetch as much as $3.5 million.
Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, an Italian of Jewish descent, purchased the painting by Girolamo Romano, an artist also known as Romanino, at a 1914 auction in Paris. The painting, which is believed to date to1538, depicts Christ, crowned with thorns and wearing a copper silk robe, carrying the cross while being dragged along by a rope.
The man amassed a large collection of paintings that he displayed at his home in Paris. He died of natural causes a few weeks before the Nazis stormed into France in 1940, which forced members of his family to flee the country.
The work is believed to have been among more than 70 paintings from Gentili di Giuseppe's collection auctioned by the French Vichy government in 1941, court records indicate. Members of the family who fled the occupation have said the sale was illegal and had sought the painting's return.
Court records indicate that some of the paintings auctioned off were allegedly bought by "straw" purchasers on behalf of Nazi officials.
The famed Pinacoteca di Brera museum in Milan, which is owned by the Italian government, acquired the Romanino painting in 1998 but refused to return it to the family.
Salem said Wednesday that a Christie's auction house employee who visited the Milan museum last year saw the painting had been lent out and called him. That triggered an investigation that involved Interpol, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney's office.
The painting was one of some 50 works lent to the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science in Tallahassee for an exhibit. The museum, which had been struggling financially, has since paused daily operations involving the general public.
Last September, U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh ordered the Brogan museum to hold the painting instead of returning it to Italy, saying the federal government believed it rightfully belonged to the man's family.
A judge subsequently granted Marsh's request for agents to seize the painting and it was taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and held at an undisclosed location.
A federal judge in February ordered the return of the painting to the family after no one else came forward to dispute its ownership. The Milan museum and the Italian government have declined past requests for comments.
Marsh said that the quick resolution was somewhat unexpected, noting other ownership disputes have dragged on for years.
"This result happened only because people were courageous and willing to step up and do what they knew was right and good," Marsh said.
The direct descendants of Gentili di Giuseppe fled to Canada and the U.S. during World War II, although other family members died in concentration camps. Salem said there are now six living heirs and that proceeds from the sale will be divided among them.
A lawyer in France who represented the family has said the heirs have managed to recover 20 paintings in the past 15 years, but there are at least 55 paintings collected by their ancestor that they are still seeking.
"I think it will be taken up by my children and my grandchildren," Salem said.
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