February 25, 2021

The painting stolen by the Nazis returns to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

In a story of good and bad, we always need a moral reference to know where to locate ourselves. In an epic starring Nazis, merchants and art hunters, a hero is imperatively necessary. Let's put a German, who usually brings the point of repair for a shameful past. A German who has gone over to the Italian side and who, nevertheless, wants to fulfill his moral obligation. Better than better. We already have the protagonist: his name is Eike Schmidt, he was born in Freiburg and is director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. When he arrived at the museum in 2015, he found that he had the best art collection in Italy, but he was missing a piece. And it was precisely in Germany, where he has not returned since Hitler's troops passed through the Florentine capital.

So, on January 1, when any scholar would be enjoying the New Year's Concert in Vienna or resting like anyone else, Schmidt put on a very serious face and showed up in the room where the painting had left a void and placed a photocopy of the same. "Stolen!" Was read on the frame, in English, German and Italian. The poster of "Wanted" was missing from the canvas and the sheriff's star was the director of the museum, because he made it clear that his desire for the year that began was for Germany to return the painting and that until it did not, it would not stop. Said and done. After almost three decades of research, the «Vase of flowers» will finally return to Florence on July 19.

Return with narrative tension

That day a ceremony will be held with all the pomp that the Renaissance rooms of the Uffizi allow. There will be no shortage of the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas; his Italian colleague, Enzo Moavero Milanesi; and the holder of Culture of this country, Alberto Bonisoli. All of them will take the photo to immortalize the return of the work of art to its place of origin 75 years later. But the real star will remain Eike Schmidt, who has pushed the campaign to be possible. Consulted by this newspaper, he did not want to give clues of how the procedures have been developed and, for more details, he urges the day of the restitution. Every protagonist in a story knows how to maintain narrative tension. What the director of the Uffizi does anticipate is that "no ransom has been paid, since the work is property of the Italian Republic." In a parliamentary session in the Bundestag, the deputy Michael Roth also admitted months ago that "it is clear that the painting belongs to the collection of the Uffizi". Something that was not so evident until recently.

To find your rightful owner, let's start at the beginning. The "Vase of flowers", work of the Dutch painter Jan van Huysum (Amsterdam 1682-1749), was bought in 1824 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Leopold II. The Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace, symbol of the Medici power, had just been inaugurated, and it was necessary to stock up on a large collection. They took it literally, because in the museum the only empty square centimeters on its walls were those of the "Vase of flowers." And this is because in 1944, with Florence under the bombs of the Third Reich, the Nazi troops – who already controlled the city – decided to empty the gallery to protect its interior. Years before, observing the one that was coming, the Italians had evacuated the most valuable pieces. The paintings of Raphael, Leonardo or Boticelli were distributed by different farmhouses in Tuscany. Although there were no hands, space or resources to cover all the heritage. Thousands of works came out in boxes, loaded by Germans, to the delight of Hitler and his lieutenant Hermann Göring. Some of them broke. Bad luck. And the one that concerns us fell into the hands of a Wehrmacht soldier named Herbert Stock. That year, the soldier wrote a letter to his wife in which he said: "I have a beautiful painting in oil and I hope to get the right box to be able to send it to you."

Extortion object

There the trail was lost, until in 1991 the anonymous calls to Sotheby's began to try to sell the painting. First for 2.5 million, then for 2 … and as if it had already entered the auction, the price was lowered to 250,000 euros. The body of the Carabinieri for the protection of the patrimony began an investigation that has lasted until now. Sources that have followed the case confirmed months ago to this newspaper that the painting would be valued at around 12 million euros, but that Italy has never considered paying for something that it considers its own. Three years ago it was possible to locate the family that had held the work, which requested through its lawyer and art collector, Nicolai B. Kemle, an arbitration to determine who should keep it permanently. The Florence Public Prosecutor's Office acknowledged that the crime of theft had been prescribed for a long time, but hoped to recover the piece alleging that it had been the object of extortion. It was only necessary the collaboration of the German State, which according to the same sources resisted for years, but finally has had to yield.

Bureaucratic problems have prevented or slowed down the return of thousands of works that the Nazis took during the Second World War. It is very complicated to make a precise calculation, although in most of the countries involved in the fight against the Germans the figures are at least four digits. Only in Italy, the Museum of Kidnapped Art, an institution located near Milan, estimates that there are still 1,600 pieces to be returned. Also at that time there was a hero, called Rodolfo Siviero, who managed to locate most of what was stolen, but the ambition of the Nazi hierarchs was practically impossible. In France the figure of the art hunter had the face of a woman. She was named after Rose Valland and was such a valuable expert that she was hired by the Germans, not knowing that she was working for the Resistance at the same time. When the war ended, it had a secret archive so extensive that it allowed the Gallic institutions to recover much of what was lost. Meanwhile, in Germany, an opposing story emerged years ago, that of Cornelius Gurlitt, a man who inherited from his father a collection of more than 1,400 works of art that had been obtained from the Nazi plunder.

Hitler wanted to be a painter

Many of these works are part of what Hitler called "degenerate art." That is, everything produced by the vanguards of the first decades of the twentieth century, which clashed with what he considered to be admired by a good German. The classical arts, ancient Greece or German painting of the sixteenth century praised the race; everything else, no. Therefore, thanks to a decree of 1937, the regime confiscated 20,000 impure pieces, from museums and private collections, many of which have not yet been restored. Hitler was left with the desire to be a painter. But seeing his skills, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he tried to enter, he was told to dedicate himself to something else. He got into politics and when he invaded half of Europe he tried to take revenge by taking all the art that was within his reach. Göring, his right hand, also created a personal collection of which, to this day, his whereabouts are not completely known either.

With all these misdeeds, it is difficult to defend Eike Schmidt, our hero, as such. Or at least not recognize that his heroism, with a simple canvas of 47×35 centimeters, is limited. But, after all, his public campaign has served to defeat the Nazis three-quarters of a century after the fall of his empire. And that is not achieved by anyone. It will close all this long history like a symbol, so that it was almost forced to pronounce a lapidary phrase. "The return of the painting is a feat for Italy, but also for Europe and the rest of the world," he repeats these days. From July 19, anyone can go to the Uffizi Gallery, search among its tangle of paintings this "Vase with flowers" and feel comforted because this story of good and bad has a happy ending.

A German in charge of the Uffizi

In 2015, the then Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, called for the first time an international contest to appoint the directors of the most important museums in Italy. Among the 20, there were seven foreign names. Eike Schmidt held the most important position, at the Uffizi Gallery. While the also German Cecilie Hollberg was in charge of the Gallery of the Florentine Academy; Sylvain Bellenger, French, from Capodimonte in Naples; and James Bradburne, Canadian, from the Pinacoteca de Brera, in Milan. His election caused a great controversy among his Italian colleagues, who until then had maintained the hegemony. There were complaints, although the courts have always ratified Franceschini's system. With the arrival in the Government of the 5 Star Movement and the League, it was speculated again that they could reverse the opening to foreign experts. This has not been the case, but the Government is threatening to keep the Florence Academy autonomous.

(tagsToTranslate) ismael monzón

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