An oil painting that was stolen from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II was recovered by federal agents in the D.C. area, the News4 I-Team has learned.
At least two people traveled to the Washington, D.C. area to attempt to sell the painting last year, court filings reviewed by the I-Team show. The duo was scheduled to attend an auction in November 2017, but the plan was scuttled after a fine art researcher learned the painting was stolen and notified the FBI, according to the head of the auctions firm.
The painting, "Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina" by Mikhail N. Panin, was produced in 1911 and was the among the first works of art displayed in the collection of the Ekaterinoslav City Art Museum when it opened in 1914.
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The painting "disappeared during the occupation of the city during the Second World War," according to court filings. The museum was in a region of central Ukraine occupied by the Nazis between August 1941 and October 1943.
Court filings from the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia said the painting is believed to have been held and displayed for decades in a Ridgefield, Connecticut home after World War II.
The court filings said a Swiss citizen who emigrated to the United States in 1946 sold the home in 1962 and left the painting behind. The home was sold again in 1987, and the painting was left behind during that home sale as well, the court records said.
The U.S. Attorney has formally asked a federal judge to allow the forfeiture of the picture to the U.S. government. Federal agents have already obtained records from the Embassy of Ukraine in D.C. to prove the authenticity of the painting.
"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 to News4. "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."
In their filings with the court, the U.S. Attorney said the painting was scheduled to be auctioned on Nov. 18, 2017, and was published in an auction house catalogue. The filings also said at least two people hired a company to transport the 7.5- by 8.5-foot painting to the D.C.-area for the attempted sale.
Elizabeth Wainstein, owner of The Potomack Company auction house in Alexandria, told News4 that a fine arts researcher investigated the origins of the painting and found an article indicating it was once housed in a museum in the Ukraine. That article, however, indicated it had been "destroyed" during World War II, she said.
"That was definitely a red flag," Wainstein told News4.
She said the auction house reached out to the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum, which responded with an urgent request to stop the sale.
The museum's statement read: "Attention! Painting 'Ivan the Terrible' was in the collection of the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum until 1941 and was stolen during the Second World War. The museum documentation confirms this fact. Please stop selling this painting at auction!!! According the international rules of restitution of stolen works of art, the picture should return to Ukraine," according to court filings.
A 2016 report by the News4 I-Team found the FBI has recovered at least 2,650 missing pieces of art and historical artifacts since 2004. The agency has an Art Crime Team, a specialized unit of agents formed and trained to track art thefts.
The FBI and the Ukraine Embassy in the United States did not immediately return requests for comment.
It’s not the first time Potomack Company has played a role in the recovery of stolen art. In 2012, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's painting "Paysage Bords de Seine" was set to be auctioned there, when a Washington Post reporter discovered it had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951.