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  • Camille Basso

In Chicago, FBI finds a painting by Johann Franz Nepomuk Lauterer that has been missing since 1945

Landscape of Italian Character, painted by the Viennese artist Johan Franz Nepomuk Lauterer in the early 18th century, was originally exhibited at the New Palace in Bayreuth. Disappeared during the Second World War, the work had been declared a war casualty and registered in the database of the German Foundation for Lost Art since 2012. Last October, the FBI found the painting in Chicago and intends to return it to its original museum.

Peinture Le matin, par Johan Franz Nepomuk Lauterer
Le matin, par Johan Franz Nepomuk Lauterer

In December 2022, Art Recovery International (or ARI), a company specialising in the search for and recovery of works of art, was contacted by an anonymous person in Chicago. According to ARI founder and lawyer Christopher A. Marinello, the individual claimed to have "a looted or stolen painting" and wanted to return it. Marinello's uncle had indeed brought a painting back from Germany after serving in the US Army during the Second World War. However, the person did not have any further information about the painting and simply provided the ARI with several photographs.

Mr Marinello then contacted lawyers from the German firm Wantuch Thole Volhard to identify the work. Their research determined that it was a landscape by Johan Franz Nepomuk Lauterer, an 18th-century Austrian painter. Before the war, the work was part of the collection of the New Palace in Bayreuth, Bavaria, but was declared a war casualty in 1945.

In 2011, the painting reappeared on the American art market, but the seller refused to return it to the German museum. In an ARI press release, Mr Marinello explained: "I shared all the documents attesting to the loss with the owner, who initially wanted to be paid to release the work of art. I explained that our policy was not to pay for stolen works of art and that this request was inappropriate given the family connection. We also know that someone tried to sell the painting on the Chicago art market in 2011 and that it disappeared when the museum made its request. In the end, I negotiated an unconditional release of the painting and asked the FBI art crime team to bring the case to a conclusion. The FBI in Chicago confirmed the looting and gave the necessary confidence to the possessor to return the painting unconditionally."

A few days later, the FBI was able to recover the work by Johan Franz Nepomuk Lauterer and take the necessary steps for its return. On 19 October, the Italian Landscape of Character was returned to the New Palace in Bayreuth via the German Consulate in Chicago. The Alte Pinakothek art museum in Munich has confirmed that the painting will soon be joining its counterpart, Italian Landscape.

"We sometimes come across cases, like this one, where Allied soldiers have taken objects away as souvenirs or trophies of war," Marinello said in a statement. "Being on the winning side is not a good enough reason. We expect everyone to do the right thing and return stolen works of art, wherever they may be. The problem of looted works of art will not disappear, but it is often passed on to future generations".

Since its creation in 2013, Art Recovery International has regularly returned works of art looted during the Second World War by Nazis or American soldiers. Their research and restitution work has led to the recovery of several hundred works of art, worth more than €500 million.


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