Relatives of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe listened in via a conference call from London as U.S officials in a federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida transferred documents of ownership of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue’ to them.
U.S. officials seized the painting last fall while waiting for a federal judge to rule on its ownership. After signing over custody on Wednesday to the family, the painting was given to representatives of Christie's, the art auction house.
US Attorney Pamela Marsh discusses the painting "Christ Carrying the Cross" by Italian artist Girolamo de' Romani (R) as it is formally returned to representatives of the family of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe in Tallahassee, Florida April 18, 2012
The family announced that Christie's would sell the painting at an auction this June, saying the art house has estimated it could fetch as much as $3.5 million.
‘You did right a wrong and we are very grateful for that,’ said di Giuseppe’s grandson, Lionel Salem, to U.S. officials assembled in the federal courthouse in Tallahassee
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.
The man amassed a large collection of paintings that he displayed at his home in Paris.
In this Nov. 4, 2011 photo, Jose Luis Aguirre (left) and Michelle Smith Grindberg carefully remove 'Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue' from the Brogan Museum and ready it for transport, inTallahassee
He died of natural causes a few weeks before the Nazis stormed into 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 Gentili di Giuseppe's collection auctioned by the French Vichy government in 1941, court records indicate. Members of the family who fled the occupation have said the sale was illegal and had sought the painting's return.
Court records indicate that some of the paintings auctioned off were allegedly bought by purchasers 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 but refused to return it to the family.
"Christ Carrying the Cross" by Italian artist Girolamo de' Romani. The 474-year-old painting was returned to its owner's heirs on Wednesday ending a 15-year international effort to return the stolen work to its rightful Jewish owners.
Speaking to the court 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 and the U.S. Attorney's office.
The painting was tracked to the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science in Tallahassee where it had been lent for an exhibit.
Last September, U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh ordered the Brogan museum to hold the painting instead of returning it to Italy, saying the federal government believed it rightfully belonged to the man's family.
A judge subsequently granted Marsh's request for agents to seize the painting and it was taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and held at an undisclosed location.
A federal judge in February ordered the return of the painting to the family after no one else came forward to dispute its ownership.
Law enforcement officials in Tallahassee pose with 'Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue' after returning the painting to the family of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe
The Milan museum and the Italian government have declined past requests for comments.
The quick resolution was somewhat unexpected, as other ownership disputes have dragged on for years.
‘This result happened only because people were courageous and willing to step up and do what they knew was right and good,’ said Marsh.
The direct descendants of Gentili di Giuseppe fled to Canada and the U.S. during World War II, although other family members died in concentration camps.
There are now six living heirs and that proceeds from the sale will be divided among them.
A lawyer in France who represented the family has said the heirs have managed to recover 20 paintings in the past 15 years, but there are at least 55 paintings collected by their ancestor that they are still seeking.
‘I think it will be taken up by my children and my grandchildren,’ Salem said.