US Heirs Compensated by Italian Museum for a Renaissance Painting Looted by Nazis

  • TURIN, Italy
  • /
  • July 30, 2020

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JACOPO DI ARCANGELO, known as DEL SELLAIO, Madonna and Child with the Young St John and Two Angels, 1480-1485, tempera on panel, 89 x 59.8 cm. Collection Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte. Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin Photo © Alessandro Fiamingo. Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Turin's Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea and the Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte, together with the Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) in New York State, have announced the resolution of the Holocaust restitution case regarding the ownership of the Madonna and Child with the Young St John and Two Angels, 1480-1485 by Jacopo di Arcangelo, known as del Sellaio.

The painting, one of the most valuable pieces of devotional art created by Jacopo del Sellaio (Florence, 1443-1493), owes its fame not only to its art historical value as an important example of Italian High Renaissance painting, but also in memory of the dramatic events of the twentieth century that marked the fate of the family of the Jewish art collector Gustav Arens, his daughter Anna and her husband Friedrich Unger, after Nazi Germany annexed their native Austria in March 1938.

The work, installed in the tower room of Villa Cerruti, has a particularly troubled history. Purchased by the businessman and well-known Viennese art collector Gustav Arens (1867-1936) at the Galerie Sanct Lucas in Vienna in 1936, the painting was sent to the Akademie der bildenden Künste for restoration and the professor and art historian Emmerich Schaffran attributed the work to Jacopo del Sellaio rather than Raffaellino del Garbo, under whose name it was registered among the properties of Gustav Arens. After the death of Gustav Arens in March 1936, the painting was inherited by his eldest daughter Ann Arens Unger, who, after the annexation of Austria by Germany, suffered racial persecution by the Nazis. The Unger family fled Austria in June 1938 and first took refuge in France, before emigrating to the United States in May 1939. The Jewish family only retrieved their art from Vienna upon payment of a large ransom. Once in the United States, the family tried in vain to export their works of art from the Paris customs warehouse in which they were stored, and, in February 1942, the German authorities plundered the Ungers’ property, including their art collection.

After the Second World War, the Unger family recovered many of their paintings, but the Jacopo del Sellaio seemed to have vanished. Anna and Friedrich Unger searched for it for the next two decades before giving up when the trail went cold, much to the regret of their youngest daughter Grete, born in Vienna in 1928, who had especially loved this painting as a child. Unbeknownst to the Unger family, the work reappeared on the market at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne in 1974 and at a Christie’s auction in London in 1985. Two years later, unaware of the dark history of the painting, the Turin collector Francesco Federico Cerruti (1922-2015) bought it from an Italian art dealer. After the death of Cerruti, who bequeathed his legendary collection to the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, the museum conducted scholarly research on the painting and its provenance, and recognized the panel as the one lost by the Unger family.

Jacopo del Sellaio’s painting in the tower bedroom at Villa Cerruti. Photo Francesco Federico Cerruti, late 1980s. Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

In 2018 the Cerruti Foundation, also on behalf of the Castello di Rivoli, custodian of the Cerruti Collection, contacted the HCPO in New York and took the initiative to track down the heirs, now based in the US. They identified them as: Grete Unger Heinz, younger daughter of Ann and Friedrich, and the children of Ann’s sister, Gitta Unger Meier: Karen Reeds, Andrea Meier and Alan Meier. In 2018 negotiations began, which ended in the early months of 2020, based on the mutual desire to establish an amicable agreement between the parties. The museum’s objectives were to do justice, pay compensation, preserve the memory of the tragic events that occurred in Europe in the twentieth century, and offer the painting for public enjoyment in the newly launched Cerruti Collection, a house museum managed by Castello di Rivoli. The museum also sought to keep Francesco Federico Cerruti’s collection together in its entirety for future generations. The painting is therefore now on display in the Cerruti Collection, in the villa built by the collector to house his art, a short walk from Castello di Rivoli. Cerruti so loved this painting that he installed it in the tower bedroom, one of the most intimate and important rooms in his house, in which he hung many devotional works and where he believed he would spend the last moments of his life. 

Back row from the left: Frieda (Gustav Arens’ wife), Friedrich (Fritz) Unger, Gustav Arens, Grete Arens Glasner; Front row, left to right: Lise Arens; Gitta Unger (Ann and Friedrich Unger’s daughter), Ernst Glasner, ca. 1923 © Grete Heinz, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Grete Unger Heinz commented from her home in California: “At almost 93, I had lost hope that this beloved Italian Renaissance painting belonging to my parents would ever resurface. I am pleased not only that the Cerruti Foundation has reached an equitable agreement with the Unger family heirs, including a full account of the painting’s troubled history, but also that I might yet see the work itself in the Castello di Rivoli Museum in my lifetime.”

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Director of Castello di Rivoli and of the Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti, says, “I am extremely pleased that our Museum, together with the Cerruti Foundation and the heirs of Ann and Friedrich Unger, were able to successfully resolve a decades-long Holocaust restitution claim. Through scholarly provenance research on the Cerruti collection, and thanks to the HCPO, we were able to identify the heirs of this Renaissance painting lost during World War II, compensate them for their loss, and keep the painting in the Museum, for the public enjoyment. This artwork by Jacopo del Sellaio, so loved by its original owners, and also by Mr. Francesco Federico Cerruti, who acquired it in 1987 with no knowledge of its troubled past, has finally found peace.”

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