All too often when a museum learns that a treasured piece of art may, in fact, have come to them as a result of Nazi plunder, the goal becomes to keep the piece in the museum at all costs, frequently resulting in litigation that can drag on for years. But this is the story of a museum that took a different approach.
When the North Carolina Museum of Art re-hung "The Madonna and Child with Landscape" by Renaissance master Lucas Cranach, the elder, it was a final chapter in a saga of war, and loss, and recovery that no one would have predicted.
The story began in the early years of World War II. As Hitler's armies marched across Europe crushing all resistance, deporting millions and seizing their assets, they also had another mission: to accumulate plundered artwork for what they envisioned as the greatest museum in history-- a museum dedicated to the glory of the Third Reich.
As museum curator John Coffey came to know all too well, the Cranach painting belonged to Philip von Gumpfretz.
Von Gumpfretz was a wealthy Jewish industrialist who, when the Nazis came across him, signed over his extensive art collection in return for safe passage to Switzerland. The Cranach painting ended up in the hands of the Nazi governor of Vienna, where it reportedly hung in his private office.
After the war, the painting changed hands several times. By the time it was donated to the museum in 1984, all evidence of its turbulent past had disappeared.
Then, museum director Lawrence Wheeler received a letter stating that their treasured Cranach was suspected of having come to them him as the result of Nazi crimes. "We knew that it probably was the painting, so it was that first moment of realization -- it was like 'Wow, this painting is going to leave the collection.'"
For curator John Coffey, it was a stunning loss to contemplate. "The Cranach was the jewel of the museum's Northern European collection. It is just an absolutely beautiful picture. The scene just shows Mary holding the infant Jesus, and holding up a bunch of grapes."
The museum's claim to this beautiful, mystical object had been tainted. The heirs of Phillip von Gumpfretz were two elderly sisters living in Vienna but represented by Monica Dugot of the Holocaust Claims Processing Office.
"I think the documents in this case spoke for themselves," Dugot said. "It was very evident that the painting on the walls in North Carolina was in fact identical to the Cranach that the sisters had been trying to find for the past 40, 50 years."
The paper trail was as extensive as it was chilling. When a 1943 photograph of the looted Cranach showed up, the decision was simple -- thpainting had to be returned to the sisters in Vienna, period. "You know what the right thing is when you see it," Wheeler said. "And, certainly, we knew that it was the right thing when we saw it. We said 'we relinquish the claim to the picture. We restore it to you.'"
And that was when the tide turned.
Yet when the museum simply gave the painting to them without litigation or conditions, the sisters suddenly became interested in finding a way for the painting to stay in North Carolina. "They wanted to right a wrong. Not so much about the money. It's really the righting of wrongs," said Dugot.
The sisters accepted what the museum could offer, $600,000 -- about half the painting's value -- and gifted the other half as a tribute to the way the museum handled itself. They also knew that by leaving the Cranach in North Carolina, the story of the painting and of their great uncle's sacrifice would continue to be told.
The decisions made by the North Carolina Museum of Art in this case have been hailed as a model for museums dealing with Holocaust claims in the future.
It may be a model, but what is the likelihood that others will follow the lead? Well, one museum in Chicago did just that. Whether or not they all get the same result is another matter. But in seeing what these museums have done, they realize it makes them all look good.
As for the painting, there are plans for an exhibition which will explain its history and will honor Philip von Gumfretz and the generosity of his descendants.