This Rubens Painting Vanished During World War II. Now, It’s Returning Home to a Castle in Germany

“St. Gregory of Nazianzus,” once part of the Baroque palace’s collection, was stolen and sold at the end of the war

Gregorius von Nazianz
St. Gregory of Nazianzus is finally heading home to Germany. Christie’s

As World War II drew to a close, a painting by Peter Paul Rubens was stolen from Friedenstein Castle, a Baroque palace in Gotha, Germany. Now, eight decades later, officials have successfully negotiated its return.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (1621), which depicts the titular biblical figure, belongs to a collection of sketches that Rubens created as part of a commission: decorating the ceiling of Antwerp’s Jesuit Church of St. Charles Borromeo. It was Rubens’ first major commission for a public building.

The Flemish artist sketched numerous biblical scenes in preparation for the project. However, the finished paintings no longer exist. Lightning struck the building in 1718, setting it on fire and destroying all 39 of the artworks.

Today, all that survives are 22 of Rubens’ studies, according to the Art Newspaper’s Hili Perlson. For many years, five of those studies were housed at Friedenstein Castle.

Built in the 17th century, the castle was once home to the dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Not long after the German revolution of 1918, legal privileges for German nobility were abolished, and the duchy lost its titles and powers, according to the New York Times’ Catherine Hickley. The castle became a public museum; meanwhile, a foundation was given ownership of the family’s paintings and treasures, which were put on display.

In 1945, near the end of World War II, the paintings were moved from the palace to the town of Coburg to keep them out of Soviet hands, per the Art Newspaper. Amidst this commotion, members of the ducal family appear to have illegally taken three of the Rubens paintings—including St. Gregory of Nazianzus—which they then sold.

The sketch eventually made its way to the United States, where it ended up at the Albright Art Gallery in New York, now known as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. The painting has remained there ever since.

A few years ago, the museum—not knowing the piece had been stolen—decided to sell it. Officials contacted Christie’s, which investigated the work’s provenance and learned of its true history. After lengthy negotiations, the museum agreed to return the painting to Germany.

“We were able to persuade the U.S. museum not to offer the work at auction, but to have a private sales agreement to repatriate the work to Gotha,” Dirk Boll, Christie’s deputy chairman of 20th- and 21st-century art, tells the Times.

The final price is not public, but the Times reports it’s a “low seven-digit figure” well below the painting’s estimated value. Funding for the effort came from the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, which also played a key role in proving that the painting’s original sale was illegal.

“The recovery of the Rubens sketch is doubtless a prelude to further significant restitutions for which, depending on the history of the loss, no market price is paid and fair compensation is sought between the parties instead,” says Martin Hoernes, the general secretary of the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, to the Art Newspaper.

The painting will go on display at the Ducal Museum, which is in the Friedenstein palace complex. The museum now holds three of the five Rubens sketches; the two others sold by the ducal family are still missing, though officials are trying to facilitate their return.

“I am delighted,” says Tobias Pfeifer-Helke, the director of the Friedenstein Foundation, to the Times. “Our goal is to restore the historic integrity of the collection—especially its core works, these five Rubens sketches which belong together as a series.”

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