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U.S. returns stolen masterpiece to Germany

portrait of Christ
The portrait of Christ by Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari, valued at $5 million, was stolen from a German castle more than 50 years ago  

In this story:

Soldiers suspected

No charges filed


RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow


NEW YORK (CNN) -- U.S. Customs officials returned a stolen 16th-century painting worth $5 million to German officials Tuesday, and marked the act with the formation of a new art fraud investigation center in New York City.

U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly turned over the masterpiece, a portrait of Christ by Venetian artist Jacopo de' Barbari, to officials of the Weimar Museum during a brief ceremony. The painting was stolen more than 50 years ago.

"This small treasure was appraised recently at 5 million dollars," Kelly said. "But it carries a lesson more valuable than that. The lesson is that America is not a safe haven for stolen art. We will help find it."

Kelly, a former New York City police commissioner, said the Customs Art Fraud Center, also called the "art recovery team," will not be staffed with new special agents, but will coordinate outreach programs and set up art fraud training and databases. The unit will cost between $600,000 and $800,000 a year to run, Kelly said.

Soldiers suspected

U.S. Customs Commissioner and Weimar Museum Director
U.S. Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly, left, shakes hands with Dr. Thomas Foehl, director of the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar Museum in Weimar, Germany, during a ceremony Tuesday  

The returned painting, "Bust of Christ," was one of 13 works stolen from Schwartzburg Castle in the aftermath of World War II, said Dr. Thomas Foehl of the Weimar Museum. Four paintings have since been recovered in the New York area, including two portraits by German artist Albrecht Durer.

During World War II, the castle was used to store artworks from the Weimar Museum to protect them from Allied bombings. The U.S. Army seized the castle at the end of the war. When U.S. troops left, 13 paintings were missing, Foehl said.

U.S. soldiers have since been suspected of stealing the works, but an investigation completed in 1950 failed to determined exactly who stole them, a U.S. Customs official said.

The painting by de'Barbari then reappeared in 1972 in a Catholic church in Astoria, New York. Monseigneur Thomas Campbell, then pastor of the parish who is now 85, said he cannot remember how he got the painting, Customs officials said. The priest gave it to a nun, who taught art in a grammar school attached to the church.

No charges filed

In 1998, the nun decided to restore the frame and gave it to a furniture refinishing business in Rockville Centre, New York. Customs officials said in a statement. The owner of that business, Frank Vaccaro, guessed that the painting was stolen and investigated its origin, Customs said. He then asked the Weimar Museum to pay $100,000 for the return of the painting. The museum informed Customs officials, who seized the painting.

No charges were filed against Vaccaro, officials said, because the $100,000 he asked for and the painting's real value were wide enough for him to argue that money he wanted was for a finder's fee.

The art recovery team will be based in New York City because of the concentration of art dealers there. About 65 percent of all U.S. art imports arrive through the port of New York. This year, the Customs' New York Office of Investigations has seized $10.5 million worth of art, accounting for 80 percent of such seizures nationwide.



RELATED STORIES:
Recovering Holocaust's lost masterpieces
May 19, 2000
British take steps to return art plundered by Nazis
March 4, 2000
Museum wins dispute over art allegedly stolen by Nazis
September 21, 1999
Asiaweek.com: Auctions--A Cultural Revolution
May 19, 2000
U.S. returns stolen ancient artifacts to Peru
October 8, 1998

RELATED SITES:
Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar
Barbari, Jacopo de'

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