It’s not often that I come across a story of art restitution that is more local in nature, but this one involves an auction house just down the road, more or less, and a painting that would be kind of hard to miss, given that it’s not exactly something that would fit hanging over your sofa or in the powder room.
“The Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina” (1911) was painted by the Ukranian artist Mikhail Panin (1877-1963), a pupil of (arguably) the most important of all Russian artists, Ilya Repin (1844-1930). Like his master, in the early part of his career Panin specialized in those vast, historical canvases that governments like to commission to fill up the big, blank walls in official buildings. Eventually, the equestrian picture of Russia’s most infamous Tsar ended up in the State Art Museum in the Ukranian city of Dnipro, and there it probably would have remained, except that the Nazis stole it and a number of other works from the museum in 1941.
From there, the trail goes cold until after World War II, as the Art Crime blog explains:
The artwork eventually made its way overseas to a house in far away Ridgefield, Connecticut where the home and the massive artwork were both purchased by David Tracy and his wife Gabby, a Holocaust survivor in 1987. The Tracy’s purchased the home themselves from a previous couple who likewise purchased the home along with the painting in 1962, this time from a former Swiss soldier who emigrated to the United States in 1946 but whom had died in 1986. The artwork had remained in the Ridgefield residence all that time, until the Tracy family, downsizing their home for a smaller condominium, and assuming the canvas was of modest value, consigned the painting to Potomack Company Auctions & Appraisals in Alexandria.
Fortunately, the auction house did their homework and discovered that the picture was Nazi loot, and arrangements were made between the consignors and U.S. and Ukranian officials and law enforcement to return the painting to the Ukranian Embassy. That handover took place yesterday, at the auction house’s galleries in Old Town Alexandria. While it’s too bad for the Tracy’s that they weren’t able to realize the sale of the painting – for which, as the Post explained at the time of the initial discovery, they had actually built an extension onto their house in order to be able to display it properly, and had hoped to use the proceeds of the sale to pad their retirement nest egg – nevertheless, they absolutely did the right thing here.
Given the enormous amount of art looted by the Nazis during World War II, and the uncertain fate of a significant percentage of that art, this is by no means the last restitution story connected to World War II that we’ll hear about in the coming years. It was internet research that led the auction house to track down the origin of the picture, and email communications which led to its return. As more archival material concerning artists and collections becomes available online for researchers, more chances for discovering lost treasures such as these will continue to be forthcoming.