YouTube video

Director Eike Schmidt of Florence’s famed Uffizi Galleries is playing hardball with the German authorities who have yet to return a Dutch painting stolen from the museum’s collection during World War II.

Although such vaunted cultural institutions aren’t generally known for airing their dirty laundry so publicly, the Uffizi has used social media to shame Germany for its inaction with a Tweet, Youtube video, and online essay that put the country on blast 75 years after “Vase of Flowers,” by the 18th-century Dutch master Jan van Huysum, was stolen by Nazi soldiers.

Schmidt, who is a German national and the first foreign-born director of the Uffizi, stars in the minute-long video with deadpan seriousness. He enters the Room of the Putti in the Pitti Palace, which is overseen by the museum, with a black-and-white replica of the stolen painting covered in red typeface, reading “RUBATO! GESTOHLEN! STOLEN!”

Below the replicated work is a sign that explains how the Van Huysum was stolen in 1944 by the Nazi army and now resides in a private collection within Germany. The New York Times (NYT) reports that last year, the family that now has the work entered “on-and-off negotiations” with the Florentine museum for the return of the painting, but talks deteriorated when they asked for a substantial sum of money in return. (According to CNN, a spokesman for the Uffizi said that the family was offering it for €500,000 [~$573,000], which is below market rate.)

The law in Germany states that legal claims for stolen property cannot be made after more than 30 years. The government considered changing the law after the 2012 discovery of more than 1,000 Nazi-looted artworks in a Munich apartment, but those changes were never enacted.

The bad publicity drummed up by the Uffizi may eventually spur action, but so far the Germans have not responded to the recent request.

Italian prosecutors and the Carabinieri, the national military police force, which has a division for investigating art theft, have opened investigations into the painting’s movements since it was taken from Italy. According to The Times, they are also investigating whether the family’s request for money is tantamount to extortion.

“What belongs to the Italian state has to be returned to the Italian state,” said General Fabrizio Parrulli, the commander of the Carabinieri’s art theft unit. His investigators were working with Florentine prosecutors, but declined to give details “because the investigation is ongoing.”

The Pitti Palace was evacuated during WWII, and the painting, along with others, first moved to the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano, a small town outside of Florence. From there, it went to Villa Bossi Pucci on the city’s outskirts. The Uffizi says that before retreating from Florence in 1944 as Allied troupes advanced, German soldiers shipped artworks north at the same moment that “Vase of Flowers” disappeared from the public record.

“Thanks to the photo in the Room of the Putti, people will never forget that this work was stolen,” Schmidt said to the NYT. “No one would ever be able to say that ‘I purchased this work in good faith,’” he said.

But Italy has its own critics who accuse the country of downplaying its collection of looted art. At an international conference convened in Berlin to measure the progress of post-WWII restitution, Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former State Department official and White House adviser, said that the Italian government had failed to complete “provenance research or listing of possible Nazi-looted art in their public museums,” and that Italy appeared to be more interested in “what the Italian government lost.”

“This story is preventing the wounds inflicted by World War II and the horrors of Nazism from healing,” Schmidt said in a statement. “Germany has a moral duty to return this painting to our museum and I trust that the German Government will do so at the earliest opportunity, naturally along with every other work of art stolen by the Nazi Wehrmacht.”

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.