Nazi-looted artwork 'from Uffizi,' Berlin acknowledges

Uffizi curator Eike Shmidt with print of Nazi-looted painting

 FLORENCE -- The German government has acknowledged that a painting looted by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War does indeed belong to the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

 "It is certainly clear that the painting belongs to the Uffizi collection," German Foreign Minister Michael Roth, speaking on behalf of Angela Merkel's government, said, adding his support for the galleries' numerous attempts to have the artwork returned. 

 The painting, 'Vase of Flowers' by 18th century Dutch artist Jan van Huysum, was looted from Florence by German soldiers in 1944 and is now owned privately by a German family. Dr Eike Schmidt, head of the Uffizi since 2015, said the family had refused “numerous requests” for the artwork to be returned.

 "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly sought the voluntary return of the painting to the Uffizi," Roth said, clarifying that the German government is powerless to forcibly confiscate the painting from the family. "The judicial authorities of the state (province) have the responsibility to assess whether the seizure of property by a separate member state of the European Union is admissable." 
 At the beginning of 2019, Dr Schmidt made a renewed case for the painting to be brought back to Florence. The director made his appeal in a video disseminated on the Uffizi website and social media. “An appeal to Germany for 2019: We hope that this year may finally see the return to the Uffizi Galleries of the celebrated work of art entitled Vase of Flowers, a picture painted by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum that was stolen by Nazi troops in World War II,” Dr Schmidt said.

 The artwork (oil on canvas, 47 x 35 cm) was painted by renowned still-life painter van Huysum (Amsterdam 1682-1749). It belonged Palazzo Pitti’s collections since 1824, when it was bought by grand duke of Tuscany Leopold II for the newly founded Palatine Gallery. The painting was exhibited in Palazzo Pitti for over a century, together with other Dutch still-life works of art by the most renowned artists of the ‘600 and ‘700.

 In 1940, the palace was evacuated and the painting taken to the Medici’s family villa in Poggio a Caiano, near Florence. In 1943, it was moved to another villa, owned by the Bossi Gucci family. Between November 1942 and January 1943, the director of the Uffizi Galleries Giovanni Poggi, succeeded in organizing moving outside of Florence over 3107 boxes containing paintings and other works, as well as 4170 individually packed paintings or sculptures.

 In 1944, the painting was stolen by German soldiers as they retreated north through Tuscany. They transported it to a castle in Bolzano, the capital of the German-speaking region of South Tyrol. It was then smuggled to Germany, where its traces were lost for almost 50 years.

 It was only in 1991, after the German reunification, that the painting resurfaced. Since then a number of “intermediaries’’ contacted the Italian authorities offering to sell the painting back. These requests are “absurd” and “outrageous”, Dr Schmidt said, because the artwork is stolen property. “The painting is already the inalienable property of the Italian State and thus cannot be ‘bought’,” he said.

 The refusal to handover the painting is a reminder that the “wounds” inflicted on Italy by Nazi occupation are “not healed yet’’, said Dr Schmidt, adding that “Germany has a moral duty to return this painting to our museum and I trust that the German government will do so at the earliest opportunity, naturally along with every other work of art stolen by the Nazi Wehrmacht.”

 For the time being, a black-and-white picture of the painting hangs in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, where the original was once kept, with a caption explaining that it was stolen by the Germans. Beneath the photograph is the word “Stolen!” in three languages – Italian, English and German. “We will be very pleased to remove this photograph, when the original will be given back to the Uffizi,” concluded Dr Schmidt.