The “Monuments Men” movie is paying dividends – to the countries, families and museums that lost looted masterpieces during World War II.
At the State Department Tuesday the Monuments Men Foundation turned over custody of five recovered paintings to the Federal Republic of Germany to be returned to their owners.
Foundation Chairman Robert Edsel, who wrote the best-selling book - “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” - turned into a successful George Clooney-directed movie, announced the discovery and repatriation of the paintings. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, helped preside over the transfer of the artwork to German Ambassador Peter Wittig.
The paintings were recovered after the Dallas-based foundation received tips on the hotline1-866-WWII-ART that was posted at the end of the film.
One call came from the heirs of Margaret Reeb who had bought two paintings in 1945 in Germany while working as a librarian for the United States Special Services.
The two paintings had been in a castle taken over by American forces as an officers’ club and have a British royal pedigree: they had belonged to the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Victoria, who had married German Emperor Frederick III. One of the recovered paintings, “Madonna and Child” is actually a portrait of Princess Victoria as a child being held by her mother, the queen. The 19th century artist is unknown. Princess Victoria’s royal seal is on the back of the other painting, a copy of Anthony Van Dyck’s “King Charles I in Three Positions” that is attributed to the studio of Van Dyck, a 17th century Flemish artist.
Edsel met with her descendant, Donatus Landgraf von Hessen in Kronberg earlier this year and he had the inventory of the family belongings, which included both paintings. Reeb had paid about $20 for the paintings as a souvenir; her nephews in Montana found them in her estate.
"I believe that working with the Monuments Men Foundation honors her legacy and is a testament to her personal character and patriotism,” said Mike Holland, a nephew. “We are excited to know that these paintings will now be returned to their rightful owners."
The provenance of the other three paintings was even clearer: they carried the labels and markings from an art museum in Dessau in the former East Germany. They had been stored in a nearby salt mine for safekeeping.
Last year Dallas resident James Hetherington contacted Edsel to say that he had three paintings that his stepfather, Major William Oftebro, had won in a card game. One of the paintings, “The Prodigal Son” is by an important 17th century Flemish artist, Frans Francken III.
Dessau Mayor Peter Kuras said, "Thanks to such fortunate circumstances, three important paintings can be returned to the Anhaltische Gemaldegalerie Dessau. It is not just a question of luck however. All art-loving citizens of the city of Dessau extend their gratitude to the Monuments Men Foundation whose persistence and diligence has led to the rightful return of artworks misplaces during times of conflict and war.”
The families that returned the paintings did not receive any compensation, said Edsel, who believes they were motivated because “it was the right thing to do.”
“All five paintings are beautiful pictures and are in great, great shape,” said Edsel, adding they only needed some cleaning.
Nuland thanked Edsel and the Monuments Men Foundation and gave a special thanks to the families that had come forward and relinquished the paintings.
"We are fortunate to have private organizations and individuals –like the Monuments Men Foundation and Robert Edsel – to work with us in our quest to bring missing cultural property to light and to return it to its rightful owners. We are equally fortunate for families like the Hollands and the Hetheringtons, who cared for these works of art for 70 years, and decisively reached out to the Monuments Men Foundation. Today's ceremony is only possible because of their deep sense of justice and generous spirit."