The FBI Returns A Stolen Painting to Ukraine

A painting that had been stolen from a Ukrainian art museum by the Nazis in 1941 was consigned to a Virginia auction house two years ago when its true nature was discovered.

"Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina," a 1911 oil on canvas by Mikhail Panin, was successfully returned to Ukraine on September 9, 2019 after it was stolen by the Nazis in 1941. Image: US Attorney Office
"Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina," a 1911 oil on canvas by Mikhail Panin, was successfully returned to Ukraine on September 9, 2019 after it was stolen by the Nazis in 1941. Image: US Attorney Office

The FBI Art Crime team returned a 1911 painting titled "Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina" by Ukrainian artist Mikhail N. Panin to the Embassy of Ukraine yesterday after it was revealed that the artwork was stolen when the Nazis occupied the country during World War II.

The large-scale painting (7.5 by 8.5 feet) had hung in Ukraine's Ekaterinoslav City Art Museum (now called Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum) since 1913 until it was pilfered by the Nazis in 1941. The work's whereabouts were unknown until it was consigned to the Virginia-based Potomack Company auction house in 2017 by David and Gabby Tracy, who had become owners of the painting 30 years prior because it came with the purchase of their home in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

At the end of 2017, the Potomack Company auction house received emails from the Ukraine museum calling for the return of the painting. Image: U.S. Attorney’s Office In Washington / Associated Press via the Ridgefield Press
At the end of 2017, the Potomack Company auction house received emails from the Ukraine museum calling for the return of the painting. Image: U.S. Attorney’s Office In Washington / Associated Press via the Ridgefield Press

Fine Arts specialist Anne Cramer was entrusted with researching the provenance of the artwork and soon discovered its sordid history. The Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum in Ukraine sent her images of the very painting hanging in the museum in 1929 and requested that the painting not be sold but returned. The artwork was recorded as having been taken to Germany during Hitler's regime, along with over 60 other works from the museum.

Related: The Top 10 Stolen Paintings

Further digging revealed that the painting had come into the hands of a former Swiss Army vet who served during World War II and moved to the United States in 1946. The homeowners prior to the Tracys had purchased the home with the painting in the 1960s and it remained there until the Tracys took it with them when they later moved to another home in the area.

“It’s ironic this painting was stolen by the Nazis and we were taking care of it for 30 years,” said Gabby Tracy, who is a Holocaust survivor, to The Ridgefield Press in a phone interview. “Indeed, it was the Russians that liberated me in Budapest with my family — not my whole family, they didn’t all make it.”

After the FBI was alerted to the stolen nature of the painting in 2017, the U.S. filed a civil complaint in December 2018 to forfeit the artwork to Ukraine.

“The recovery of this art looted during World War II reflects the commitment of this office to pursue justice for victims of crime here and abroad,” said U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu. “The looting of cultural heritage during World War II was tragic, and we are happy to be able to assist in the efforts to return such items to their rightful owners.”

"Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina" was painted by Mikhail Panin (1877-1963) in 1911 when he was a student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. Image:  US Attorney's Office
"Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina" was painted by Mikhail Panin (1877-1963) in 1911 when he was a student at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. Image: US Attorney's Office

The artwork depicts Ivan the Terrible, the first Tsar of Russia, who ruled from 1547 to 1584 and established the monarchy in Russia, transforming it from a state to an empire. The scene shows Ivan secretly departing Moscow in 1564 in a ploy to regain absolute power over the wealthy noble families. Without his presence in the Kremlin, the aristocracy had no voting power and were vulnerable to attack. They begged him to return to the city, but his condition of return was the Oprichnina, which turned out be a suppressive policy that called for mass land confiscation and executions of the nobility.

The painting, which depicts a pivotal event in Russian history, has now returned to its rightful home after 78 years.

Related: A Stolen Paul Signac Painting Recovered in Ukraine

“The FBI is proud to work with our partners to mark this important art repatriation and return the painting to the Ukrainian Embassy. The FBI works to return stolen art and other property to preserve the history and culture of countries around the world,” said Timothy M. Dunham, special agent in charge of the Washington Field Office’s Criminal Division, in a statement.

The FBI maintains a public stolen art file, which includes over 5,500 instances of stolen artwork and culturally significant property. The trove includes Monet paintings, Warhol prints, Pre-Columbian antiquities, and 17th century altarpieces.

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