MANHATTAN (CN) – Seventy years after Nazis looted it from Ukraine’s largest art museum as the Soviet tank offensive pushed German occupying forces out of Kiev, a Rococo painting attributed to 18th century painter Pierre Louis Goudreaux surfaced at a New York auction in 2013.
On Thursday, federal authorities announced the return of Goodreaux’s “A Family Portrait” so that the painting once lost in the chaos of World War II can be returned to its rightful owners.
According to the government’s complaint, art collector Vasilii Aleksandrovich Shchavinskii willed “A Family Portrait” to the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of the Arts in Kiev upon his death in 1924.
The Khanenko Museum evacuated some of inventory out of Kiev into Soviet Russia following the Nazi occupation in 1941, but the Goodreaux painting was not listed in the checklists of the evacuated items.
As Soviet tanks pummeled Nazi strongholds in 1943, German troops expeditiously heisted the painting and other valuables from Kiev’s Khanenko Museum, without the paper trail of prior seizures that would have registered the Goodreaux painting in the German ledger of the exported artworks.
The following year, after the Soviet Union had retaken Kiev from Nazi rule, the Soviet Committee for Art began to review pieces stolen from the Khanenko Museum. The committee listed the painting, under the title “An Amorous Couple,” as a missing piece when the review was completed in August 1948.
According to the complaint, an FBI investigation established that an unnamed New York art dealer purchased the painting from an auction house in Deerfield, Missouri, in December 1993 and posted it for auction 10 years later.
The 2015 book “Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves” named Doyle Auctions in New York as the site where the painting resurfaced in January 2013.
Estimating the painting to be to be worth at least $5,000, the government notes that the auction house maintains possession of the work, pending an official subpoena and negotiations for return to Ukraine.
A representative for Doyle, which is not named in the suit, declined to comment on the action.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman announced the recovery demand Thursday.
“Our office has a long history of righting wrongs, no matter how long ago a crime was committed,” Berman said in a statement Thursday. “Today’s action is an example of our continued commitment to ensuring that art looted by Nazis more than 75 years ago is returned to its rightful owners.”
The civil forfeiture suit was filed in rem, meaning that the lawsuit is against the asset in question (the painting), and that no criminal charge is taken against the owner of the property.
The case is being handled by the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Transnational Criminal Enterprises Unit, with Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel L. Raymond in charge of the case.