By Dave Heller
Tallahassee, Florida - Federal Homeland Security agents descended on the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science in Tallahassee on Friday to seize a nearly 500-year-old painting believed to have been stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
Security was tight as agents with Homeland Security Investigations secured a perimeter around the van that would transport the famous piece of art from the museum.
The painting, called "Christ Carrying the Cross Pulled Up by a Soldier," was part of a collection on loan to the Brogan Museum from another museum in Milan, Italy.
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Then the U.S. government received information from a foreign law enforcement source that the artwork was apparently stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family during World War II.
Now the U.S. government will hold the painting until the courts can determine the owner.
"Typically in a seizure of an item, notices go out to parties that might have ownership equities in it. They'll have a chance to answer that and then the courts will go through the procedure to determine who the rightful owner is," said assistant special agent Mike Kennedy of Homeland Security Investigations.
The CEO of the Brogan Museum had hoped the museum could keep the painting until the legalities were resolved. But Chucha Barber says she got a call on Thursday informing her that federal agents would serve a seizure warrant on Friday.
"It was a little disappointing to have the painting leave, but we certainly understand the need to cooperate with federal officials and do the right thing and they're dedicated to returning the painting to its rightful owner. So that's very comforting."
Artist Girolamo Romano created the painting around 1538. In 1914, a Jewish man named Giuseppe Gentili bought the painting at an auction. During World War II, his family fled Italy and traveled to France where the Nazis are believed to have stolen the famous painting from Gentili's apartment.
Barber says she developed a personal affinity for the painting, because of its magnificent brush strokes and beautiful satin sheen.
She says when it arrived at the museum earlier this year it was "love at first sight."
"I actually fell in love with the painting and what I loved about it was both the tangerine color and the orange sheen of the beautiful robe on Christ and I would find myself just getting really close to it, being respectful of an appropriate distance, but the brush strokes were so amazing and I kept trying to imagine the artist's mindset how he created that beautiful satin sheen. It was just amazing to me."
Barber says she hopes members of the family who are claiming ownership of the painting will visit Florida and talk to students about the long, unusual story of this historic piece of art.
"So that the real teachable lessons of the entire experience can come to light and certainly one of those core lessons are the atrocities of the Holocaust. But other lessons are the importance of museums in our community and the whole dialogue about the repatriation of art and art objects."
Agent Kennedy says the federal government is constantly working to return stolen art to the rightful owners. He says since 2007, the cultural property crime investigations unit has successfully repatriated 2,500 works of art to 21 countries.