US Sues for Forfeiture of ‘Ivan the Terrible’ Painting

Painted in 1911 by Mikhail Panin, this work is titled “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office included this photo in a forfeiture complaint filed on Dec. 21, 2018.

WASHINGTON (CN) – A painting of Ivan the Terrible stolen during World War II will be sent back to Ukraine, the United States announced Friday with the filing of a federal forfeiture complaint.

Measuring approximately 7.5 feet by 8.5 feet, the 1911 oil painting by Mikhail Panin depicts Ivan the Terrible and his loyal adherents leaving secretly from the Kremlin for Alexandrovskya Sloboda. The full title of the work is “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina.”

As detailed in the government’s complaint, which was filed Friday in Washington, the painting was one of 64 exhibits that comprised the first exposition of the Ekaterinoslav City Art Museum in 1913. Before that, the painting hung at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts.

Until 1941, when it disappeared during the occupation of Ekaterinoslav during World War II, the piece was part of the city museum’s permanent exhibition. That museum today is known as the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum, and two photos of the painting hanging on its walls are included in today’s complaint.

The government details how a married couple inherited the painting when they bought a home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1962 from a man who had emigrated to the United States from Switzerland 16 years earlier. 

In their new attic, the couple would later find a certificate that commemorated the seller’s World War II service in the Swiss Army. In 1987, a year after the death of the Swiss seller, the home changed hands again. It was this buyer, a resident of Maine described in the complaint as Person 1, who consigned the painting for auction in 2017.

Painted in 1911 by Mikhail Panin, this work is titled “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina.” In a Dec. 21 forfeiture complaint, the U.S. Attorney’s Office included this photo of the painting hanging at a museum in the Ukraine prior to its theft in World War II.

After the painting was advertised in the catalogue of an auction house, however, a Ukrainian art museum sent notice of the painting’s provenance and demanded its return. 

The FBI subsequently took custody of the painting, and forfeiture proceedings by the U.S. Attorney’s Office ensued.

With the current owners of the Ridgefield property agreeing to waive any claims to the painting, the government says it will return the painting to the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington, D.C., if  no other claims are filed. 

“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,” U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu said in a statement. “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.” 

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