painting - AP - November 4 2011
The 473-year-old 'Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue' by Girolamo Romano. Photo by AP
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TALLAHASSEE, Florida - A federal judge ordered the return of a 16th Century Baroque painting to the heirs of a Jewish man who died shortly before the Nazi occupation of France.

U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle filed the order Monday to return the work "Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rogue" to the descendants of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe. U.S. authorities seized the Italian painting last November from a Florida museum, which received it on loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera museum of Milan.

The painting by Girolamo Romano is believed to date to about 1538 and was purchased by di Giuseppe in 1914 at an auction in Paris. He died in 1940, a month before Nazi troops entered and occupied France.

The work is believed to have been among more than 70 paintings from di Giuseppe's collection auctioned by the French Vichy government in 1941 in order to pay off debts, court records indicate. But members of di Giuseppe's family who fled the country have said the sale was illegal and had sought the painting's return.

U.S. Attorney Pam Marsh said last November that the federal government believed that the painting was stolen and rightfully belonged to the family. Court documents stated that no one other than family heirs had filed a claim for ownership of the painting, which depicts Christ crowned with thorns as he carries a cross and is being dragged along.

The painting was one of 50 works lent to the Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science in Tallahassee. The museum, which had been struggling financially and faces an uncertain future, closed its doors to the public last month.

The painting has been held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at an undisclosed location. No one was available from Marsh's office on Monday evening to discuss when and how the painting would be handed over to the heirs.

Court documents filed by U.S. authorities contended that the Milan museum - which is Italian government-owned - should have known that the painting was claimed by the di Giuseppe family. Lawyers for the family wrote to the museum back in 2001 about the painting, which it had acquired in 1998. The Italian government had been contacted previously about the painting as well.

The former chief executive officer for the Tallahassee museum said late last year that her organization did not know about the dispute over the painting when it arranged to bring it from Milan as part of an exhibit.

Federico Gentili di Giuseppe was an Italian of Jewish descent who amassed a large collection of paintings that he kept on display at his home in Paris. He died of natural causes shortly before the Nazis invaded France. Other family members were forced to flee Paris without their possessions when they heard of the pending invasion.

Some of the family members made it to England, but other relatives that remained behind died later in concentration camps, court records show. The Vichy government ordered the liquidation of the estate based on debts and said that none of the heirs showed any interest in the estate. But at the time there were laws that said that Jews who fled occupied France were banned from returning there.

Court records indicate that some of the paintings auctioned off were allegedly bought by "straw" purchasers on behalf of Nazi officials.

In 2000, two American museums reached settlements with the heirs of di Giuseppe that allowed those museums to keep two pieces of artwork that were in their collections. A French court in 1999 returned five paintings to the family from the Louvre museum in Paris.

In 2008, the American Association of Museums released guidelines for museums to follow to avoid acquiring artifacts that may have been illegally exported. Museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles have agreed in recent years to return artifacts to Italy that the Italian government says were looted or stolen.