Director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Eike Schmidt, has boldly called out Germany concerning the return of a painting stolen by Nazi troops in 1944 during World War II. The artwork in question is a still-life by Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), a Dutch master, called Vase of Flowers. The painting was originally brought to Florence by Grande Duke Leopoldo II for the newly founded Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace – one of the Uffizi’s galleries. It was displayed there in 1824 and remained in the Palatine Gallery until 1940 when it was moved to a nearby location for safekeeping during the war. Unfortunately, as Nazi troops retreated north, they plundered the area taking the painting back to Germany as part of their spoils. It was then that the van Huysum’s trail went cold and it would remain missing until 1991 when it was discovered to be a part of a private collection in Germany after the German reunification.
Since the painting resurfaced, various intermediaries have tried to bring the painting back to Italy but their attempts were unsuccessful as the family who owns Vase of Flowers believes they are entitled to compensation. Schmidt, who is German-born, recently called on Germany to reevaluate laws to allow the return of the painting without payment. ‘Germany has a moral duty to return this painting to our museum. This story is preventing the wounds inflicted by World War II and the horrors of Nazism from healing,’ said Schmidt according to Reuters.
To add emphasis to his point, Schmidt personally hung a black and white scale reproduction of the painting in the Palatine Gallery on January 1st. On the copy’s frame, ‘STOLEN!’ is written in red ink in English, Italian, and German. The painting’s accompanying placard – also written in English, Italian, and German – reads: ‘STOLEN! THE WORK WAS STOLEN BY SOLDIERS OF THE NAZI ARMY IN 1944 AND IS NOW IN A GERMAN PRIVATE COLLECTION.’ Hanging the reproduction is a symbolic gesture to remind visitors of the painting’s history and Schmidt’s mission to bring the painting home. The museum has also used Twitter to publicize the point posting the reproduction and their message for 29,000-plus followers to see.
The return of the painting is made more difficult under German law which makes it impossible for the Uffizi to sue the current owners as the statute of limitations – which in Germany is set at 30 years – has expired. ‘Germany should not apply the statute of limitations to works of art stolen during the war,’ said Schmidt of the struggle he faces in bringing the artwork back to Italy, which he has pledged to do in 2019. Until such laws are adjusted or Germany makes special accommodations, Schmidt and the Uffizi may be at a stalemate. Schmidt is also expected to leave the Uffizi in 2020 to become the director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna making his timeline even more critical to the painting’s return.