Virginia museum to return painting stolen during Nazi years

Associated Press 25 May 2004
Associated Press Writer

A painting Nazis stole from an Austrian Jew more than a half-century ago soon will be back in its rightful owner's hands - almost.

Its original owner, art collector Julius Priester, is now dead. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will instead return the painting, "Portrait of Jean d'Albon," to Priester's sole heir and the manager of his estate, 78-year-old Kurt H. Schindler of Hampshire, England.

Schindler said he has been fighting courts, police, museums and collectors around the world since 1953 to secure the return of more than 20 paintings that rightfully were Priester's.

Until this week, his efforts were fruitless.

"We're just not making much headway," he said Friday by telephone. "This is the first one we've really recovered."

Schindler lifted the veil on the painting's history three months ago with a call to the Richmond museum. The 16th Century, French School piece of art is attributed to the Dutch-born Corneille de Lyon.

"It was clear from the nature of his information that his claim was serious," said Kathleen Morris, an associate curator at the museum. "It's our policy to respond to those kinds of claims as quickly as possible."

She said Schindler's painting was the first stolen from Jewish owners during that time period the museum has been asked to return. But she said the museum is working to investigate the history of all its artwork with gaps in ownership records between the years of 1933 and 1945.

She called the quality of Schindler's evidence, which included a photograph of the painting and a 1950s European police report, critical to proving his claim. Eight versions of the painting are known to exist, and Morris also credited art historians for their research of the artist and the Internet for providing information about Jewish-owned art stolen during World War II.

"It's a shame because we're so many generations out from the people who lost their property," she said. "It's only now, as the children of these people are dying, that the information has become available."

The oil-on-wood-panel painting has been at the museum since 1950, when museum benefactor Wilkins Williams bought it from a gallery in New York. It has been in storage since 1985, when the museum began an expansion project.

Although it was unclear exactly how much the painting is worth, museum officials said other works by the same artist have been valued at up to $220,000.

Morris said the museum is certain the Wilkins family did not knowingly buy stolen art.

"They would have been as shocked as we were to find out this was stolen," she said.

Museum officials plan to display the painting for two weeks while they arrange to ship it to Schindler.

"I was delighted," Schindler said. "I've had so many, sort of, disasters that until I actually see the thing, I won't believe it."

He said the search for his paintings has led him through a tangle of legal battles and shady deals from Europe to the Americas. He said he hit dead-ends repeatedly, usually in the form of uncooperative people who either had the paintings or knew where they could be found.

Morris said professional standards for U.S. museums call for repatriating stolen art. More than 100 museums have contributed information about art objects to an online database called The Nazi Era Provenance Internet Project. It catalogues more than 11,400 artworks without complete ownership histories covering the years when the confiscation of Jewish property was
routine in Germany.

The Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, known more simply as the claims conference, is a driving force behind the database. Vice President Gideon Taylor said getting artwork returned requires managing "incredibly complex issues of proof."

Sometimes, a family photograph containing the artwork in the background may be all that's available. Little public information accompanies art transactions generally, and transfers of art stolen by Nazis were "shrouded in secrecy," Taylor added.

Schindler said he plans to keep fighting to have his estate's remaining paintings returned.

"As long as I can keep going, I'll keep going," he said.
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