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  • Robert M. Edsel

He Looked Down the Hill from his Resting Place and Smiled: The Stolen Masterpiece by Jan van Huysum

Monuments Man Lt. Fred Hartt, a towering figure in the art world and one of the saviors of Tuscany’s incomparable works of art – both during World War II and again in 1966, when floods devastated the city – died in 1991. His remains are buried in the cemetery on the hill of San Miniato in Florence, the only city he ever considered home. His spirit, and that of Monuments Man Capt. Deane Keller, who is also buried in Tuscany (at the Campo Santo in Pisa), were present today as we took another significant step in completing the work of the Monuments Men.

Jan van Huysum (1682-1749); Vase of Flowers; oil on canvas; 18.50 in (47.00 cm) x 13.77 in (35.00 cm).

Today, in a ceremony at the Pitti Palace in Florence, German officials returned Jan van Huysum’s Vase of Flowers to Italy. This painting, missing for seventy-five years, was one of nearly 750 works of art belonging to the iconic museums and churches of Florence and other Tuscan towns that local officials had hidden in countryside villas, away from the dangers of war. In July 1944, German forces stumbled upon the art caches, loaded them onto trucks, and drove north to hiding places in two small towns near the Italian/German border. The Monuments Men discovered both of the German repositories in early May 1945. Hartt and Keller quickly inventoried the contents of each art stash. Their hearts sank when they realized ten paintings were missing, which they assumed German troops had looted during the journey north. Not until 1963 did seven of the ten missing paintings surface in two separate discoveries, both in the possession of former German Wehrmacht soldiers involved in the August 1944 art heist convoy. The return of the van Huysum brings the number of paintings that eluded Hartt and Keller down to just two (School of Anthony van Dyck; School of Agnolo Bronzino).

Common to all discovery and restitution cases are these four characteristics: diplomacy; extensive research and investigative work; influencers who raise awareness and engage the court of public opinion; and luck/timing. In the case of the van Huysum return, all four were present in abundance. It’s easy to point fingers at the bad guys – and yes, there were a few involved that delayed the return of this work of art for years.

Robert Edsel, General Fabrizio Parrulli and Eike Schmidt. (Photo courtesy of Carabinieri TPC)

That is another story, for another time. This day, we recognize and honor all those who worked in concert to achieve this right outcome, in particular the diplomatic efforts of Alberto Bonisoli, Cultural Heritage Minister of Italy, and Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, working with their counterpart, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas; the investigative leadership of General Giovanni Nistri, General Commander of the Italian Carabinieri Corps, and General Parrulli, Commander of the Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Unit, whose dedicated team tracked down every lead during a multi-decade investigation; and Eike Schmidt, Director of the Uffizi Galleries, who courageously stepped forward in January of this year to make a public and moral appeal for the return of the painting.

Many other people contributed in important but less visible ways. Our success in raising worldwide awareness of the Vase of Flowers, through my books, in particular Saving Italy, which included a list with images of the major missing works of art, our groundbreaking investigative documentary series, Hunting Nazi Treasure (produced by Saloon Media), which dedicated an entire episode to these wartime events in Italy and profiled the missing van Huysum, and of course the work of the Monuments Men Foundation also played an important role.

Raising public awareness is essential to locating and restituting missing works of art. Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Moavero Milanesi underscored this point at the very beginning of today’s ceremony when he observed that the return of the van Huysum painting was the story of the Monuments Men brought to life. But the final words of the ceremony from General Nistri were the ones that moved me and others the most. Placing the day’s event into historical context, he said: “For all the joy and happiness in this room today, no one could be more pleased than Monuments Man Lt. Fred Hartt, who is looking down the hill from San Miniato, smiling at the return of this painting.”

Monuments Men Foundation has since 2007 discovered and returned more than twenty objects, many priceless, to their rightful owners.

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