Girolamo Romanino’s Christ Carrying the Cross - the cover lot of Christie’s New York June 6th Old Masters Auction is as exceptional as the story behind its arrival at auction. The looting of the artwork during World War II, epic ownership battle with the Italian government, rightful return to the owners and very quick turnover to auction is headline deserving, but hardly mentioned in Christie’s promotional materials.
Christ Carrying the Cross (circa 1538) portrays the eternal struggle between good and evil. Christ is depicted in a majestic satin robe hunched under the weight of the cross, next to the image of his torturer emerging from the shadows. The latter, with a prominent bushy moustache wearing a red beret adorned with a white plume, is suggestive of Germany mercenary soldiers menacing Northern Italy in the 16th century that Romanino would have seen in German prints. Paintings depicting this chapter of the Passion of Christ were intended for devotion and immensely popular in Italy at the time; yet the caliber and provenance of this particular rendering by a lead painter of the north Italian school, who would later influence Caravaggio and other Baroque painters, are truly exceptional.
Although Christie’s estimated a tremendous sale price of $2.5-3.5 million, the story behind the painting is priceless. In 1914 the piece was purchased by Jewish businessman and art collector Federico Gentili di Giusepi, who later died by natural causes in 1940 only one year before the Nazis invaded France. His family fled the country and the painting was believed to have been sold at a forced auction of his estate by the French Vichy government in 1941, acting in accordance with the Nazi occupiers. The Nazis looted approximately 670,000 works of art between 1933 and 1945, many of which have still not been returned to their rightful owners.
It was 1998 when the government-owned Pinacoteca di Brera Museum in Milan acquired the painting, simultaneously refusing to return it to the heirs. When a Christie’s employee noticed the painting was on loan to Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science in Tallahassee, Florida, he contacted the family triggering an investigation involving Interpol, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations and the US Attorney's office.
Last September, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents seized the painting from the the financially-struggling Mary Brogan Museum, and in February 2012, a judge ordered the return to its rightful owners. According to The Telegraph, the family so far managed to reclaim 20 paintings from Federico Gentili di Giusepi’s collection, but are still searching for over 50 more.
And after years of struggle, the first thing the family did after celebrating the painting's return was put it up for sale. Romanino's Christ Carrying the Cross greatly surpassed the pre-sale estimates selling for a tremendous $4,562,500, which the family can now use to pay the lawyer bills.