(CNN) -- Federal authorities seized a masterpiece painting from about 1538 from a Tallahassee, Florida, museum because it was stolen as part of the Nazi plunder of World War II, prosecutors said Friday.
Officials will protect the art -- a painting entitled "Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rascal" by Girolamo de' Romani, known as "Romanino" -- until its real owner is confirmed, federal prosecutors said.
The painting of Christ, crowned with thorns and carrying the cross while being dragged with a rope by a soldier, has been on display at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science since March 18 as part of an exhibition of 50 Baroque paintings on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, Italy, prosecutors said.
U.S. Attorney Pamela C. Marsh of northern Florida said that, under U.S. law, the painting cannot be returned to Italy until the ownership disputes are resolved.
"Our interest is strictly to follow the law and safeguard this work until the courts determine rightful ownership," Marsh said in a statement. "Through this process, all rightful claimants may be heard, and we can rest assured that justice will be done for all parties involved in the dispute."
Authorities allege that the painting was among the plundering of art and other valuable items from the estate of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, who died in Paris of natural causes in 1940, just months before the Nazi army invaded France in 1941, authorities said.
Before the invasion Nazi invasion, Gentili's children and grandchildren fled France and escaped to Canada and the United States, authorities said. Other family members, unable to flee, died in concentration camps, authorities said.
The grandchildren have been taking legal steps internationally to recover the possessions taken during the Nazi occupation, prosecutors said.
"In a landmark 1999 decision relating to World War II plunder, a French Court of Appeals forced the Musee de Louvre in Paris to return five paintings to the Gentili family, and ruled that the auction of the Gentili estate in Nazi-occupied France was an illegal forced sale and a 'nullity,' " U.S. prosecutors said in a statement.
CNN's Michael Martinez contributed to this report.