A Dutch still-life painting, stolen by retreating Nazis and sent by a German soldier as a present to his wife, was safely returned to a Florence museum on Friday.
The work of art, known as ‘Flower Vase’, was taken from its home in 1943 by Nazis who were retreating north during World War Two, following the Allied invasion of Italy.
The painting has now been returned home, thanks largely to a relentless campaign by the Uffizi Galleries’ director, German national Eike Schmidt.
Dutch master Jan van Huysum painted the still life and it was first displayed in Florence in 1824.
The foreign ministers of both Germany and Italy were on hand on Friday for the unveilling of the artwork in the Palazzo Pitti, a Renaissance palace that is part of the Uffizi Galeries.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, left, and Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli watch the unveiling of the ‘Vase of Flowers’ painting by Jan van Huysum, at the Pitti Palace, part of the Uffizi Galleries, in Florence, Italy, Friday, July 19, 2019. Germany returned the Dutch still-life after it was stolen by Nazi troops during WWII
Director go the Uffizi Gallery Eike Schmidt delivers his speech during the unveiling ceremony of the ‘Vase of Flowers’ painting by Jan van Huysum
The painting is a masterpiece by Jan van Huysum, an early 18th-century artist whose exquisitely detailed still-life works were highly sought in his day.
Uffizi director Eike Schmidt earlier this year urged his native country to return the work.
He had posted on a gallery wall three labels where the painting had hung before being taken during World War II: ‘stolen,’ the labels read in Italian, English and German.
His homeland, Schmidt said at the time, had a ‘moral duty’ to return the work.
Italian Foreign Minister Enzo Moavero hailed the ‘civic and moral courage of a German director of an Italian museum’ in pursuing the painting’s return. As did his German counterpart, Moavero hailed the happy ending, saying it was achieved through ‘real Europeanism, of concrete facts’ and not just words.
He revealed to reporters that the painting’s return was discussed, among other matters, during bilateral talks between Italy and Germany.
The painting’s whereabouts appeared to be a mystery until a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Earlier efforts to return the painting had failed, after it resurfaced in reunified Germany in the year 1991, and was found to be in the possession of a German family whose identity has not been disclosed.
The ‘Vase of Flowers’ painting by Jan van Huysum, is unveiled during a ceremony at the Pitti Palace
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, left, and Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli unveil the ‘Vase of Flowers’ painting
Starting in 1991, the German family repeatedly tried to sell the painting to Italy via intermediaries, ‘threatening to give it to a third party or even destroy it if a ransom wasn’t paid,’ the Italian culture ministry said. The latest approach for money was made to the Uffizi in 2016, it said.
Lawyers for the family argued that the soldier had bought the painting at a market to have something nice to send to his wife, whose house had been bombed.
But following calls from Schmidt to return the €2 million (£1.8 million) painting, German authorities made contact with the descendants of the Nazi soldier who took it and negotiated a secret deal to get it back, German newspaper Die Zeit reported.
‘Flower Vase’ is so realistic it has been likened to a photograph. Van Huysum used a magnifying glass to study his subjects. Ripples are visible in insects’ transparent wings, to name just one striking detail on the returned painting.
The ‘Vase of Flowers’ painting by Jan van Huysum, is seen during a ceremony at the Pitti Palace
The painting was acquired in 1824 by a grand duke of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty, which followed the Medicis in residing in the palace in Florence.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, the palace’s artworks were packed for safekeeping into wooden crates and moved from villa to villa. When the Germany army was retreating, the crates were added to other war booty and eventually ended up in Bolzano, an Alpine city near Austria. There the crate containing ‘Flower Vase’ was opened, and in July 1944, a German soldier sent the painting to his wife in Germany.
Minister Moavero quoted the soldier as writing instructions to his wife to ‘put it in a gilded frame.’
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass thanked Schmidt for campaigning so passionately for the painting’s return. ‘Here is its place, here is where it belongs,’ he said.
At a time of tensions among many European Union allies over migrant issues, Maas saw inspiration in the successful artwork diplomacy. He likened an EU ‘without ‘diversity, without solidarity’ to a ‘museum without paintings on display, a vase without flowers.’
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass, left, and Italian Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli watch the unveiling of the ‘Vase of Flowers’ painting by Jan van Huysum