Nazi War Plunder Crimes May Extend to Painting in Recent Exhibit at Florida Museum

  • TALLAHASSEE, Florida
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  • September 08, 2011

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"Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue" by the Italian Renaissance artist Girolamo Romano.

U.S. authorities have notified The Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science that a stunning, 400-year-old painting of Christ, on loan to the institution as part of a special exhibit, is at the center of an international controversy involving Nazi war plunder during World War II. Until the rightful ownership of the painting is determined, federal authorities may prohibit the painting’s return to the Milan museum from which the exhibit originates.

The masterpiece, “Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue,” by Girolamo Romano or “Romanino,” circa 1538, was on display at The Brogan Museum from March 18 to September 4, where it was viewed by nearly 23,000 visitors. The painting is part of an exhibition of 50 Baroque paintings from Milan, Italy’s renowned Pinacoteca di Brera. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Simonetta Coppa of the Superintendence for Historical Artistical and Ethnoantropological Heritage for the provinces of Milano Bergamo Como Lecco Lodi Monza Pavia Sondrio Varese.

U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh, of the northern district of Florida, alerted The Brogan Museum’s Chief Executive Officer Chucha Barber that the painting is alleged to be among countless works of art and other valuables illegally plundered by the Nazis during World War II.  It is believed that the Nazi-sympathetic French Vichy government seized and sold the work in question, when the Gentili family – the Jewish family that owned the masterwork – fled Nazi occupation during the war.   Barber said she was told by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the painting cannot be returned to Italy until the ownership disputes are resolved.

“The Brogan Museum, its staff and its board are actively cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office, our national government and our friends in Italy to resolve this matter in the most appropriate manner,” said Brogan President of the Board of Trustees Dave Mica.

Giuseppe Gentili’s grandchildren have taken legal steps to find and reclaim works lost during the Nazi occupation. In a landmark 1999 decision relating to war plunder, an appeals court forced the Louvre to return five paintings to the Gentili family that were sold at auction at the same time as the painting on display at The Brogan Museum.

Barber said the Museum is actively cooperating with federal authorities, and providing regular updates to the Milan museum. She added that the global arts community is increasingly sensitive to the need to repatriate stolen artifacts to their rightful owners.

“This case underscores that justice is still required for the egregious Nazi crimes against humanity committed in the second world war, even 70 years later and 4,000 miles away,” said Barber. “The Brogan Museum’s commitment is to protect this treasure and to share its beauty with the public through this exhibit, until its rightful owner can be determined.”

War crimes by Hitler and his Nazi regime included the horrific holocaust’s systematic and massive extermination of Jews and other peoples, in concentration camps and by other means. But the war crimes also included “Nazi plunder” – the massive seizure, theft and illegal sale of art, precious metals, currency and other items that were part of organized looting of European countries by the Third Reich’s agents. Although many items were recovered by the Allies right after the war, thousands still are missing.

An international effort continues to locate unaccounted-for Nazi plunder, with the goal of returning items to families of their rightful owners. The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), a not-for-profit educational and research organization, has helped provide information leading to the return of many items.

Earliest records about the painting indicate that it dates back to around 1538, when it belonged to the Antonio and Cesare Averoldi collection.  On June 4, 1914, it was put up for auction in Paris and bought by Gentili.  Gentili died in 1940 and his children fled to Canada, spending the duration of the war in Canada and the U.S.  Other family members, including Gentili’s sister, died in concentration camps.  A portion of Gentili’s collection, including the painting on display at The Brogan Museum, was sold at auction by the Vichy government in 1941.  Ultimately, the painting entered the Pinacoteca di Brera collection in 1998. 

Romanino depicts Christ, crowned with thorns and wearing a striking copper-colored silk robe, carrying the cross on his right shoulder while being dragged with a rope by a soldier.  The image of Christ carrying the cross is typical of Lombard-Venetian painting in the sixteenth century and of Romanino in particular. 

The entire Italian Baroque exhibition on display, valued at more than $30 million, consists of priceless artworks created from the 16th century to the end of the 18th century, a period in Italian art history which has not been fully represented for many years in American museums, Barber said.

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