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Spanish Museum Gives Up Two 15th Century Paintings After Evidence Surfaces They Were Looted by the Nazis

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Edited by: Fern Sidman

In the matter of Nazi looted art that has been dominating the headlines these days, it has been reported that now, Spain’s Museum of Pontevedra said it has turned over two 15th century paintings to Polish authorities after it was discovered that they had been looted by the Nazis during World War II.

On January 25th, a restitution agreement was formally signed between César Mosquera, vice president of the Pontevedra Provincial Council, and a representative of the Polish government when the paintings in question known as Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows) and Ecce Homo were handed over to Poland.

The ARTNews.com web site reported that the iconic artwork was originally attributed to Dieric Bouts, a renowned Flemish painter born in 1410. Later research found both to be the work of his students. The paintings were deemed to have been looted from Poland by Nazi forces.

According to Poland’s culture ministry, the government contacted Spain’s Museum of Pontevedra in 2020 to say that its collection included Nazi loot, ARTNews reported.

“We’re helping to restore an injustice, helping to restore plundered art, helping in whatever way we can to make the world a better place,” said Mosquera, according to the Algemeiner report. The report added that the two paintings are part of 700 pieces that Nazi forces stole from the Czartoryski collection in the Polish village of Gołuchów during World War II. The museum reported that thus far, the Polish government has only been able to recover one other piece from this same collection.

Since 1994, The Museum of Pontevedra, has maintained ownership of the two Nazi looted paintings which followed the acquisition of an art collection owned by José Fernández López, a Spanish collector, Algemeiner reported.

The Ecce Homo and Mater Dolorosa Diptych consisted of two small oil-on-panel. For many years they formed the wings of a hinged devotional diptych, but are now broken apart. Although their exact dating is unknown, the Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) panel, portraying Jesus bound and crowned with thorns, is thought to have been painted after 1491, while the Mater Dolorosa panel presents the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, and was painted after 1517, according to a Wikipedia report. Both panels measure 45.5 x 31 cm, although the Mater Dolorosa is slightly larger at 31.1 cm wide.

The panels portray Jesus and Virgin Mary in the moments before his Crucifixion, and are infused with senses of physical and mental suffering, according to the Wikipedia report. Jesus is scourged, and captured at the moment shortly before his Crucifixion. By tradition, this moment was just before Veronica offers him a towel to wipe his face, which leaves an imprint and becomes known as the Veil of Veronica, as was reported by Wikipedia. According to art historian Elliott D. Wise, “by fracturing the Ecce Homo narrative into a dramatically cropped view of Christ’s head, Bouts evokes the disembodied Holy Face that would soon be impressed on the cloth of the sudarium and that is already replicated with equal authenticity on the heart of the Lord’s co-suffering mother in the right pane,” Wikipedia reported.

Speculation abounds that the artworks left Warsaw in 1944 and found its way to Madrid in 1973, the report added.

Poland was systematically plundered by German forces during the war—UNESCO has estimated that hundreds of thousands of artifacts were lost—and its government is still appealing for the return of its cultural objects from public and private collections across Europe, according to the ARTNews.com report. In December, Poland’s deputy foreign minister, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, requested that UNESCO aid its campaign to reclaim its looted art.

Parallels have been drawn between Poland’s history and the organized plunder of Ukraine’s cultural heritage by Russia, the ARTNews.com report stated. To date, more than 15,000 Ukrainian artworks and artifacts have been stolen by the Russian military, with some museum collections stripped clean.

Krista Pikkat, UNESCO’s director of culture and emergencies, described Poland as a “strong” partner for this initiative, given its history, according to the ARTNews report.

“Poland is really a country at the forefront of this work,” Pikkat told the AP.

Following World War II, an international law was enshrined that prohibits signatories from “any form of theft” of cultural property.

In September of 2022, the AP reported that museums in New York that exhibit artworks looted by Nazis during the Holocaust are now required by law to let the public know about those dark chapters in their provenance through placards displayed with the stolen objects.

At least 600,000 pieces of art were looted from Jewish people before and during World War II, according to experts. Some of that plunder wound up in the world’s great museums.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law in August requiring museums to put up signs identifying pieces looted by the Nazis from 1933 through 1945.

The new rule comes as many museums in the U.S. and Europe are also reckoning with collections that contain numerous objects looted from Asia, Africa and other places during centuries of colonialism.

It isn’t clear how many pieces of art now on display will wind up being labeled as Nazi loot, and disagreements have already arisen over certain artworks with complicated history.

The AP also reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, said it had identified 53 works in its collection as having been seized or sold under duress during the Nazi era.

All of those objects were obtained by the museum after being returned to their rightful owners. But Andrea Bayer, the museum’s deputy director for collections and administration, said the public still should know about their history.

“People should be aware of the terrible cost to people during World War II as these confiscations took place, and how these peoples’ treasures that they loved and had been in their families, had been torn from them at the same time their lives were disrupted,” she said.

The museum, however, does not intend to put up such a sign on a Picasso painting called “The Actor,” which it received as a gift in 1952.

That painting was once owned by Jewish businessman Paul Leffmann, who fled Germany — first for Italy, then ultimately to Brazil — to escape the Nazis. As Leffmann liquidated assets in 1938, he sold the painting to Paris art dealers for $13,200.

Leffmann’s great-grandniece, Laurel Zuckerman, sued the Metropolitan Museum in 2016, claiming it was a bargain-basement sale price that reflected the family’s desperation to flee Europe. The museum countered that the price was actually high for an early Picasso at the time. A U.S. court eventually dismissed the lawsuit.

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