BERLIN – An American university returned a 15th century painting to a Berlin museum on Monday, more than six decades after the valuable piece was stolen in the chaotic aftermath of World War.
The Flagellation of Christ was one of more than a dozen paintings that disappeared from Berlin’s Jagdschloss Grunewald museum during the summer of 1945, looted by British and Russian soldiers.
The painting, which originally formed a wing of an altarpiece, was later sold and ended up in the Indiana University Museum of Bloomington.
“One of the many tragedies associated with World War II was the loss of countless works of art that were stolen, confiscated, looted, pillaged or destroyed,” Michael McRobbie, the president of Indiana University, said during a handover ceremony at the German capital’s Charlottenburg Palace.
The university returned the oil-on-oak painting voluntarily to what it called “its rightful owners” after it was first contacted in 2004 by the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation which oversees the Jagdschloss Grunewald museum.
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The 19.7 inches x 19.7 inches (50cm x 50cm) panel, depicts Jesus, blood-covered and bound to a pillar, surrounded by four men who are beating him with whips. It was created by an unknown artist of the “Cologne School” in the 1480s. Work and others attributed to him are considered by art experts to be the best of the period.
The painting was stolen from the German museum by a British soldier in 1945 and bought by the former president of the University of Indiana, Herman Wells, from a London art gallery in 1967. Wells, who was not aware that he had bought a stolen painting, donated the work to the university’s museum in 1985.
In 2004 and 2010, the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation published two catalogues of art lost during and after World War II, with The Flagellation of Christ among the 3,000 pieces listed.
On being contacted in 2004, the Americans immediately agreed to return the painting, said Harmut Dorgerloh, the general director of the foundation.
“This painting is one of our important works and we are happy to have it back – it closes a big gap in our collection of old German paintings,” Dorgerloh said.
Both the Indiana museum and its German counterpart refused to give the exact value of the painting, but said the work was very valuable and priceless in its importance to art history.