A Baroque painting that was lost in the Second World War is returning to a Bavarian museum after the FBI recovered it from the relative of an American soldier who had served in the occupying forces in Germany.
Before the war, the early 19th-century landscape painting by the Viennese artist Johann Franz Nepomuk Lauterer was displayed at the palace in Bayreuth, Germany, today part of the Bavarian State Painting Collections. After the war broke out in 1939, the palace's paintings were evacuated to safe locations including Neuschwanstein castle in the south of the country.
However despite meticulous records of such evacuations having been compiled under the Nazis, there was “no evidence that the missing painting by Lauterer was removed from Bayreuth,” the Bavarian State Paintings Collections said in a statement. “The possibility existed that it had been looted.”
In 2011, the descendants of an American soldier offered to sell the Lauterer painting back to Bavaria, but the negotiations failed and the painting disappeared again, the statement from the Bavarian State Painting Collections said. The landscape was listed on the lostart.de database – along with about 700 works still missing from the collections since the war.
In December 2022, a man from Chicago contacted Christopher Marinello, a lawyer who founded Art Recovery International, which traces missing art. He told Marinello that the current holder’s uncle had brought the painting home from Germany after serving in the US army during the occupation.
“I explained our policy of not paying for stolen artwork and that the request was inappropriate given the familial connection,” Marinello said in a statement. “Eventually, I negotiated an unconditional release of the painting and asked the FBI art crime team to bring the case over the finish line. The FBI in Chicago confirmed the looting and provided the extra confidence to the possessor to surrender the painting unconditionally.”
The painting, which is on wood and is titled Landscape of Italian Character, is one of two companion works by Lauterer that hung in Bayreuth before the war; the other depicts a landscape with travellers and shepherds at a ford in a river. Bavaria’s collection includes four other Lauterer works on canvas. Bernd Ebert, the head of Dutch and German baroque paintings in Bavaria, said a presentation of these works, which have recently been restored, is planned in the near future.
The recovered painting will be officially returned at a ceremony at the German consulate in Chicago today. Markus Blume, the Bavarian culture minister, said the return is “not only an act of historical justice, but also an expression of the appreciation of our cultural heritage."
Marinello said Art Recovery International occasionally “comes across cases, such as this, where allied soldiers may have taken objects home as souvenirs or trophies of war. Being on the winning side doesn’t make it right. We expect everyone to do the right thing and return stolen artwork wherever it might be located.”