It was fall 2010. Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Los Angeles received word that a School of Rubens painting, stolen from a German museum during World War II, was consigned to an auction house. A quick search of a database used by law enforcement officers revealed that the German government had reported that the painting went missing in 1945.
An investigation traced the painting back to a Los Angeles-based family. The family informed the special agents that their painting was not the missing Ruben and that there were other copies across the world. Despite the family's claim, after the law enforcement officers contacted their counterparts at HSI Frankfurt, they learned that it could possibly be the missing painting.
Almost one year later, Dr. Samuel Wittwer, of the Potsdam Sanssouci Museum in Germany, traveled with an HSI special agent to the auction gallery and determined that the painting was, in fact, the one stolen from the German museum. When HSI went back to the family to discuss returning it to the German government, a longer story unfolded. They told the special agents that the painting was taken by a Russian general during World War II. He then gave the painting to the daughter of a Soviet official, who later sold the painting to the family in Los Angeles. The family brought the painting to the United States when they moved here in the late 1970s. As supporters of the arts, the family was happy to return the painting to its rightful owners.
Earlier this month, HSI Frankfurt Attaché Michael Shea and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy participated in a cultural property repatriation ceremony with the director of the Potsdam Sanssouci Museum. The U.S. government returned the School of Rubens painting, which belonged to Frederick the Great of Prussia, to the museum. In 1943, the painting was removed from Frederick the Great's Potsdam Sanssouci Museum and taken to the Palace of Rheinsburg, where it was stolen two years later.
Learn more about cultural property, art and antiquities investigations.