In January 2019, a video of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence shows its director dramatically affixing a framed black-and-white photo of a painting on a wall in a gallery. Around the photo in bold red lettering is the word “stolen” in German, Italian, and English along with a caption that explains that the original work of art was stolen by Nazi soldiers during World War II.
The painting is “Vase of Flowers,” a still life by the 18thcentury Dutch master Jan van Huysum. It is an oil on canvas, 47 x 35 cm. The Grand Duke Leopoldo II of Tuscany bought “Vase of Flowers” in 1824 to hang alongside other Dutch still-life paintings for the newly created Palatine Gallery in the Pitti Palace. It hung in the Room of the Putti of the Pitti Palace, which is overseen today by the Uffizi.
In its place now is the provocative photograph, which is part of the Uffizi’s social media campaign to pressure Germany into stepping into the dispute over the stolen painting. Eike Schmidt, the first foreign director of the Uffizi and himself a German, made a lengthy “Appeal to Germany for 2019” on Twitter which said, among other things, that “Germany has a moral duty to return this painting to our museum.”
The painting has been in the hands of a German family that is possibly related to the soldier who took the painting during the war. For decades there have been “on and off” negotiations between Italian authorities and agents of the family. Last year (2018) a representative for the German family offered to return the work in exchange for about 500,000 euro (about $567,000).
This prompted outrage and action. Italian prosecutors and the special elite division of the Carabinieri that investigates art theft, have opened investigations into the movement of the painting since it was taken from Italy. They are also evaluating whether the family’s request for money could be viewed as extortion. “What belongs to the Italian state has to be returned to the Italian state,” stated the commander of the Carabinieri’s art theft unit. And Schmidt stated firmly, “We’re trying to get the German family to understand that we are not in a legal position to buy something that according to Italian and international law we already own.”
The appeal has now moved to the German government, which has not yet responded. Under German law, legal claims for stolen property cannot be made after more than 30 years. This German statute of limitations means that when property is in private hands, there is no legal way to force its return, and no basis for government intervention. For many years Israel and Jewish groups lobbied Germany to carve out an exception for items looted in the Nazi era, but this never became law.
Mr. Schmidt claims that generating publicity over “Vase of Flowers” should make it difficult for the German family that holds the painting to try to sell it. “Thanks to the dramatic photo in the Room of the Putti, people will never forget that this work of art was stolen. And thanks to the publicity on social media, no one would be able to say ‘I purchased this work in good faith.’”