In an action that marked the closing of a nearly century-long chapter, a baroque landscape painting which had been unaccounted for since the turmoil of World War II, found its way back to its native Germany this past Thursday. The painting had been in the U.S since it disappeared during the war.
The artwork, a creation of 18th-century Austrian artist Johann Franz Nepomuk Lauterer, was returned by the FBI to a representative from a German museum. The handover event occurred at the German Consulate in Chicago, the location where the depiction of an Italian countryside was previously on display.
The painting was unearthed by Art Recovery International, a company dedicated to the pursuit and recovery of pilfered or looted art. A call in 2020 from a resident of Chicago owning up to possession of a “stolen or looted painting” set the wheels in motion. The individual receiving the painting from an uncle, a veteran of World War II, marked the initial American connection to the story.
Dating its disappearance back to 1945, the painting first came up as stolen from the Bavarian State Painting Collections in Munich, Germany. The art recovery company’s data indicated that the painting had been added to the database of the German Lost Art Foundation in 2012.
Christopher Marinello, founder of Art Recovery International, gave insight into the company’s mission. He brought to light their niche in the field – locating and reclaiming artworks looted by Nazis and presently held in both public and private collections. There are instances, too, that involve allied soldiers bringing home war-trophies or souvenirs he cautioned, firmly stating that being on the “winning side” does not validate such acquisitions.
While choosing to keep anonymous the Chicago resident who possessed the painting, it was noted that the individual had initially requested payment for the artwork. Such a transaction was firmly rejected by Marinello, who stands by the policy of non-payment for stolen artwork and viewed the request as inappropriate.
The journey towards reclaiming the painting included a 2011 attempt to sell it on the Chicago art market. In that instance, the seller vanished when the museum lodged claim to the artwork. Thanks to the efforts of the FBI Art Crime Team, local attorneys, and the museum, Marinello was able to negotiate an unconditional surrender of the artwork.
Now titled the “Landscape of Italian Character,” the painting is set to reunite with a companion piece featuring similar visual elements. Both pieces come together to depict a panoramic scene of shepherds and travelers, their livestock in tow, crossing a river.
It has been announced that the pair will soon be showcased together for the first time since World War II at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, per Bernd Ebert, the institution’s chief curator for Dutch and German baroque paintings. Ebert noted the unusual thrill of recovering a long-lost painting, expressing excitement for the process.
Worry lines from the war, which saw numerous Bavarian museum collections relocated for safety, just so mar the short but productive life of the Vienna-born artist, Lauterer, who lived from 1700 to 1733. The missing painting since the early days of the great war suggested possible looting.
Initial inquiries regarding the artwork were conducted between 1965 and 1973 by the Bavarian State Painting Collections, but no leads surfaced for many decades.
To return the painting, Ebert traveled from Munich to Chicago. He is set to carefully pack the centuries-old landscape for its journey home. Once there, the piece will be gently restored after its eventful past few decades.
As for the logistics of getting the painting back across the Atlantic, Ebert chuckled, revealing that it should comfortably fit into his suitcase.