Portrait of a painting: from Nazi Germany to Westerville

Columbus Monthly 29 January 2016
By Joel Oliphint

John and Janis Bobb always wondered about the origins of the mysterious painting that hung in their dining room. Then the Westerville couple discovered the unsavory truth—and righted two decades-old wrongs.

                                        Janis and John Bobb in their Westerville home

John and Janis Bobb were no strangers to travel. Even before they retired, the Westerville couple made frequent jaunts to Europe—Italy, France, Austria. But this trip was different, unplanned and hastily arranged.

As they scurried around their condo, going through their final mental checklists before heading to the airport, they couldn’t help but notice that one painting hanging in the dining room. It still didn’t look right.

Their home is filled with sculptures and artwork, including a few painted by John’s great aunt, famed Columbus artist Alice Schille. But that one painting, an early British scene from the late 1500s, was too small for its new space. And it wasn’t just the size that was off. The wall looked odd without the larger, baroque-era oil painting of the young man in his powdered wig that previously hung in that spot; a painting they were now flying to Poland to visit.

    Portrait of a Young Man

Never did the Bobbs fathom that the painting of the young man had never been theirs to own in the first place, even though it had been a part of their home for 25 years. But all that changed the day FBI agent Paul Zukas contacted them and shared an astonishing tale. The painting, known as “Portrait of a Young Man,” had been stolen some 70 years prior, by the Nazi army no less, from a museum during the World War II invasion of Poland, then later taken by an American GI as a souvenir and brought to the U.S.

But now it was back where it belonged.

* * *

There are more exciting ways to spend a Saturday night than sifting through old Kodachrome slides. But Bob Wittmann knew little about his father. He wanted to know more, and these slides were providing clues.

His parents divorced when Wittmann was a toddler, and the weekend visits ended with his father’s death in 1971, when Wittmann was just 12.

Wittmann started re-searching the one thing he knew—his father’s service record. John Wittmann was a decorated member of the 42nd “Rainbow Division” during World War II, and even as a kid, Bob knew that war record was an essential part of his dad’s identity. Wartime mementos had been a part of John’s living room decor—the white, polished bust of Hitler, the porcelain figurines, the painting of a funny-looking man in a powdered wig, all vague memories Wittmann retained of his father.

And so in August 2009, after another long week in a decades-long career working for General Motors, Wittmann whiled away a Saturday night in his suburban Detroit home scanning slides into his computer. His brother had given him the old slides, along with an 8-inch stack of letters their father had written home during the war. As the scanner whirred and illuminated each slide, Wittmann knew he was likely the first person in decades to see the images appearing on his screen.

    John Wittmann with his World War II souvenirs, including the painting

There was his father, smiling in full uniform, rainbow on the left shoulder. It was taken at home mere months after the end of the war. Another photo in the same series showed his father pointing a Mauser “Broomhandle” pistol at that Hitler bust Bob recalled as a youth. He’s smirking and looks proud—deservedly so, given his two Purple Hearts and the Nazi shrapnel that just missed his jugular. Over his father’s right shoulder hangs the same gold-framed painting of the man in the powdered wig that seemed odd and out of place to Wittmann even as a kid.

Then another slide appeared, a close-up of the gold-framed painting’s back, and in the lower right corner was a label that piqued his curiosity. “Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie,” it read, alongside a serial number, “127168.”

    A tag on the back of “Portrait of a Young Man” became the clue that led to its return to Poland.

Googling the foreign phrase led Wittmann to the National Museum in Warsaw. He was onto something. Searching the serial number turned up a page titled “Wartime Losses,” and there, staring back at him from the computer screen, was the image of that same man in the wig. The artwork was titled “Portrait of a Young Man,” painted by Krzysztof Lubieniecki in 1728. “Owned by the National Museum in Warsaw, inventory number 127168,” the website indicated. “Lost between 1939-1945.”

Wittmann felt chills. The painting had been looted by the Nazis, and somehow his father had ended up with it. “I’m in awe, sitting in front of my computer, saying, ‘Oh my goodness. This is significant,’” Wittmann says.

Two weeks later, Wittmann emailed Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage about his discovery, and over the next six years, the bread crumbs would lead Wittmann, Polish officials and a determined FBI agent to clues in Warsaw, Austria, Florida, Maine and eventually to a Westerville condo.

* * *

In late July 2015, John Bobb received an unusual phone call. He was taking a morning walk with his dogs, Lilly and Fritz, along the rocky beach in historic Castine, Maine, a place where he and Janis have enjoyed summers for the past 13 years.

Janis was volunteering at the Castine Historical Society when her husband burst in unexpectedly. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. “I just got a call from the FBI.”

An agent from the FBI’s Cincinnati office wanted to know about a painting he said might be in the Bobbs’ collection. John, understandably confused, asked about the subject of the painting, but all the agent could tell him was that it was a portrait of a young man. In someone else’s home, that might be a clue. But not in the Bobbs’ home.

In the Bobbs’ Westerville living room sits a sculpture of the goddess Astarte that originated in Cyprus about 500 B.C. At the other end of the room stands a display case of Greco-Roman antiquities and a bust of Silenus, the Greek god who taught Bacchus the ways of the grape. Beautiful paintings adorn the walls in every room—French impressionists, Dutch paintings from the baroque period, an anonymous portrait of Catherine the Great’s first husband as a boy, as well as several of Alice Schille’s works.

With such a collection, “a young man” wasn’t enough to convince Bobb he had the painting the FBI was looking for. Plus, he was in Maine. Many of his paintings were back in Ohio. But a week or so later, FBI agent Paul Zukas called from Poland with more details that made Bobb begin to think that perhaps the painting Zukas was searching for was, in fact, hanging on his dining room wall.

The painting always had been a bit of a mystery to the Bobbs. John had purchased it in 1990 after receiving an obscure tip—a friend of a friend heard of someone looking to downsize. Bobb couldn’t identify the signature on the painting, but it was dated 1728 and looked to be of the period. “I knew it was extremely well-executed,” he says. “I thought, ‘If this person doesn’t want it, I’ll be more than happy to purchase it.’” (Bobb declined to say how much he paid for the painting.)

Over the years, Bobb attempted to find out more about the piece, which had lost its backside labeling by the time he bought it. Though he spent most of his professional career working for the Columbus food brokerage firm his father started, J.M. Bobb Co., he also held a graduate degree in art history from the Sorbonne in Paris and had done some consulting work for museums. “I have enough avenues to figure out who it would have been,” Bobb says. “The name could have been Polish or Russian. As I was researching, I thought it was probably a member of the Prussian court during that time. So I went down that avenue.”

The problem was, in Lubieniecki’s artistically designed signature, the “L” looks a lot like a “K.” Bobb mistakenly researched “Kubieniecki” and, unsurprisingly, ran into dead ends. Not knowing the painter or the subject, he and Janis affectionately nicknamed the portrait “Stanislauf.”

* * *

As a young man, Adolf Hitler aspired to be an artist, but the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna rejected him. In Robert Edsel’s book “The Monuments Men,” which was later adapted into a movie starring George Clooney, he describes how Hitler channeled his love of art into a personal collection he hoped one day to display in the Führermuseum he dreamed of building. To grow that collection into something truly museum-worthy, he began confiscating artworks or forcing their sale from Jews in Germany and Vienna in the late 1930s. Then, with the help of his second-in-command, Hermann Göring, the Third Reich pillaged art from all over Europe between 1939 and 1945.

After Nazi Germany’s bombing of Warsaw during the invasion of Poland in 1939, and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, very little of the city remained. Poland’s Division for Looted Art now estimates that more than half a million of the country’s works of art were stolen or destroyed during World War II. Poland maintains a database of roughly 63,000 artworks still missing.

Krzysztof Lubieniecki was a Polish painter who worked in Amsterdam in the 1700s, and his “Portrait of a Young Man” was packed into a crate for safekeeping alongside other paintings belonging to Warsaw’s National Museum in August 1939, according to the Ministry of Culture. But on Oct. 9, 1944, the crate was spirited away by the Nazis to an unknown destination.

Some of the Nazis’ looted art ended up at Fischhorn Castle in Austria. According to the Monuments Men Foundation, there was a small chapel in the upper floor of Fischhorn Castle filled with looted art, including works from Poland’s national collection.

John Wittmann’s 42nd Rainbow Division arrived at Fischhorn Castle on Aug. 1, 1945, and remained for almost two months. On Aug. 4, Wittman wrote home about his new digs. “Dearest Mother,” he wrote. “At last we are in Bruck, Austria … Our [command post] is in a castle that Goring owned and he was captured there. One room has the complete Polish Archives in it and another hold[s] $2 million worth of paintings and jewels. The paintings being [original] Rembrandts… The box I tried to send is [too] heavy so I’ll have to break it down to several boxes.”

Bob Wittmann believes the Lubieniecki painting was in one of the boxes John sent home. The problem was he had no idea what happened to it after his dad died. His father remarried, but Bob wasn’t close with his stepmother, who received most of John’s belongings after his death.

But his discovery that night, scanning slides into his computer, started a chain reaction of events. After Wittmann’s initial email in August 2009, Poland’s Ministry of Culture urged him to find out what he could about the whereabouts of the painting. He managed to track down his stepmother, Carolyn Wittmann, in Fort Myers, Florida, and spoke to her on the phone for the first time in 20 years. He asked if she still had the painting, but she said she’d sold it almost 20 years ago to someone with the last name “Bobb.”

Wittmann passed his findings along to Poland, and for the next six months he received intermittent phone calls from the Department of Homeland Security to review the facts of the case. After that, the calls stopped.

“I felt like I had done my piece,” Wittmann says. “If it was lost, it was lost. But I always wondered if it was resolved and I just wasn’t informed. Did they solve it? Is it done?”

The work, however, was not done. Though Homeland Security appeared to have let the trail go cold, Poland’s Ministry of Culture wasn’t about to. It approached another U.S. investigatory agency, the FBI, which has an office in Warsaw, and asked for assistance. Monika Wasiewicz, head of the FBI’s Poland office, assigned agent Paul Zukas to the task. “Paul jumped all over this,” Wasiewicz says.

Zukas says Wittmann’s preliminary research was crucial to the investigation. “He laid the groundwork. Standing on his shoulders allowed us to get the end result,” Zukas says. “The key to tracking down the Bobbs was that, technically, Carolyn Wittmann never sold [the painting] directly to the Bobbs. The transaction was orchestrated through a third-party buyer. When we called the Bobbs and mentioned the third-party contractor, it jogged his memory. He was not only able to say, ‘I think I have the painting,’ but also, ‘Is it that painting from 1728?’”

Zukas asked if the Bobbs could email him a photo of the painting. He was walking back from the U.S. Embassy to his hotel when the email arrived. Zukas excitedly opened it and then waited. And waited. The photo was coming in slowly, line by pixelated line. “It took like five minutes,” he says. “I was getting that jumpy feeling—is it the one or not? When the whole thing appeared, the picture looked exactly like the images I’d seen of it. It had to be it. It was a great feeling.”

* * *

Once the Bobbs returned home from Maine in September, a curator from Warsaw’s National Museum and a representative from Poland’s Ministry of Culture traveled to Columbus, as did a member of the FBI’s Art Crime team, to authenticate the painting. The curator used scaled duplications of the painting from old records to verify the measurements and alignment. She also had an enlargement of the face that showed a specific pattern of crackling and verified that pattern with a magnifying glass on the original. Everything matched.

The Bobbs knew going into the meeting that they’d likely be saying goodbye to the painting and that they wouldn’t receive any compensation for giving it up. But that was OK. The previous night, the Bobbs even invited some friends over to their condo for a “farewell to Stanislauf” gathering. “It belongs to the Polish people and should be there,” John says of the painting.

“I don’t think there was any decision point for John and I about this,” Janis says. “When we realized it was supposed to be there, it was important for us to just say, take it, and put it back where it belongs.”

Once the painting returned to Poland, press releases went out and news stories followed. When Bob Wittmann opened his work email on Tuesday morning, Sept. 29, he found an email from one of his GM buddies linking to a story in the Washington Post and telling him he should be proud. “I thought, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’” Wittmann says. “I start reading, and I’m not even completely through it when I receive a text from my brother in Columbus, who sent me a link to the Columbus Dispatch article.”

Later that morning, Wittmann received an email from Karina Chabowska of Poland’s Division for Looted Art, thanking him for his help in the recovery. That Friday, Zukas called Wittmann to say the FBI and Poland would love to have him attend a rededication ceremony for the painting at the National Museum in Warsaw on Oct. 8—less than a week away.

Wittmann desperately wanted to be there, regardless of the short notice. So, like the Bobbs, Wittmann and his wife, Yvette, found themselves scrambling to make last-minute travel arrangements. They met the Bobbs for the first time in the lobby of a Warsaw hotel. “Well, I wondered who’d fingered me,” John said to Bob with a smile. The two couples spent the next three days together, touring the city and the museum; Bob marveled at the back and forth between the museum guide and John—art lovers in their element.

At the rededication ceremony in one of the museum’s stark, white halls, Bob and John sat at a head table wearing headphones as interpreters translated speeches by the Minister of Culture and the museum director. The U.S. ambassador to Poland spoke, as did John and Bob. News cameras flashed as they posed for pictures with Polish officials, the painting and the FBI.

To Bob, the ceremony for a painting that had once hung in his childhood living room was surreal. To Janis, it was a tear-jerker. Sure, it was hard to say goodbye to a painting she and John had treasured for 25 years. But these were tears of joy. She was feeling the full impact of a long-overdue homecoming.

Even the typically stoic FBI was emotional. “It was probably the highlight of my FBI career,” Zukas says. “It was just such a privilege and honor to be there. You could see a piece of the identity of Poland, which that painting represented, return. It was like a lost child coming back. There was an electricity in the room you couldn’t help but feel.”

    Janis and John Bobb, left, with Bob and Yvette Wittmann at the National Museum in Warsaw’s
    rededication ceremony

“This is very, very symbolic and extremely emotional to the Poles,” Wasiewicz says. “They suffered greatly [at the hands of the Nazis]. Poland has a lot of national museums with a lot of galleries. You enter these buildings, and they’re empty. Most of the items have been destroyed or taken out. You literally feel the wind blow through the rooms. Every item like this, when it returns, is truly a celebration.”

In Wittmann’s speech at the rededication, he acknowledged his father’s role in the painting’s disappearance. “He was very frank about how there were two lootings,” Zukas says. “One was by the Nazis when they looted the National Museum, and the second one was when his dad took the painting.”

“I would like to challenge all servicemen from World War II, their survivors, museums and private collectors to scrutinize and vet your holdings,” Wittmann told the crowd. “When there is an obvious theft, as in this case, follow the example set by John and Janis Bobb and return the item, without question, to the rightful owners.”

It’s not uncommon for innocent purchasers to end up with a painting that was previously stolen, but the return of the item is often the result of contentious negotiation and litigation, says Dan Leeper, a special agent in the FBI’s Columbus office. “We don’t take the Bobbs’ gesture lightly,” he says.

“It’s one thing to find a trail. It’s another thing to give up an asset,” Wittmann says. “At the end of it, for them to say, ‘Take it home with you,’ I think it’s heroic.”
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