Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Italy Caves on Restitution, Defaults After U.S. Seizes Painting in Florida

"Christ Bearing the Cross Dragged by a Rascal" by Girolamo de' Romano ("Romanino")

A federal court in Florida last week cleared the way for the heirs of a Jewish art collector to take possession of a painting that, according to the U.S. government’s complaint, had been illegally seized and auctioned by French Vichy authorities in concert with Nazi occupiers in 1941.

The painting, “Christ Bearing the Cross Dragged by a Rascal” by 16th-century artist Girolamo de’ Romano, was in the United States as part of a 50-painting loan from Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera to the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida. 

Painting Seized at 11th Hour

On November 4, 2011, a mere two days before the painting was scheduled to return to Milan, the U.S. Attorney’s Office began the federal court action.  That same day, the painting was seized by U.S. Customs and Homeland Security officials amid a blast of media coverage.

Neither the Brera nor the Italian government, which owns the Brera, answered the U.S. government’s complaint, and on January 3 the court entered a default judgment against them.

According to papers filed with the court, the art collector, Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, had amassed a collection of more than 70 works, some of which his heirs have been attempting to recover.  In 1999, a French court ordered the Louvre to return five paintings, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Princeton University Art Museum have settled with the heirs, the papers say. 

Schiele's "Portrait of Wally"

The last high-profile painting that was seized by the government off the walls of a museum – first by New York State and then by the Feds -- was Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of Wally,” which was on loan to MoMA from the Leopold Museum in Vienna.  It took 10 years to settle that case.

Seizure was permissible in both instances because MoMA and the Brogan failed to get U.S. State Department certification granting these works immunity from seizure.

The Italian government and the heirs of Gentili di Giuseppe had been in negotiations for some time before the show that included “Christ Bearing the Cross” was due to close, and in July the U.S. Attorney requested the Brogan to keep the painting beyond the show’s end date, until the ownership dispute was resolved.

Reporting on the dispute in October, the New York Times stated that Chucha Barber, the Brogan’s chief executive, hoped that the publicity might bring the museum much needed donors.

No such luck.  The museum will shutter its doors indefinitely on January 15 while it figures out how to become financially viable, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. 

Princeton settled the heirs' claim to Pintoricchio's St. Bartholomew
Images: Top, Wikipedia; bottom, Princeton University Art Museum website

Text Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert