Masterpiece returned to heirs

Masterpiece returned to heirs

Florida - The Associated Press
Masterpiece returned to heirs

A more than 400-year-old Italian painting is removed from the Brogan Museum for transportion. AP photo

U.S. authorities ended an art drama more than 70 years in the making on April 18, when they returned a 16th century masterpiece to the family of its rightful owner, who had sought for years to reclaim the painting after it was 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 the Baroque painting, titled “Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue.” “You righted 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 custody of the painting was signed over to di Giuseppe’s family on April 18, it was given to representatives of Christie’s, the art auction house. The family announced that Christie’s will sell the painting at an auction this June, saying the art house has estimated it could fetch as much as $3.5 million.

Purchased in 1914
Di Giuseppe, an Italian of Jewish descent, purchased the painting by Girolamo Romano, also known as Romanino, at a 1914 auction in Paris. The painting, which is believed to date to 1538, depicts Christ, crowned with thorns and wearing a copper silk robe, carrying the cross while being dragged along by a rope.

Di Giuseppe amassed a large collection of paintings that he displayed at his home in Paris, but he died of natural causes a few weeks before the Nazis invaded 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 di Giuseppe’s collection auctioned by the French Vichy government in 1941, as indicated in court records. Members of the family who fled the occupation have said the sale was illegal and have long sought the painting’s return.

Court records indicate that some of the paintings auctioned off were allegedly purchased by straw buyers 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, and had refused to return it to di Giuseppe’sfamily.

Salem said 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 directorate, and the U.S. Attorney’s office.