70 Years After World War Two, U.S. Families Return German Artwork

After seeing George Clooney's 'The Monuments Men,' two families decide to return three paintings taken after war.

Matt Damon, left, and George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men.'
Matt Damon, left, and George Clooney in 'The Monuments Men.'Credit: AP

Seventy years after the end of World War II, five paintings were returned to Germany on Tuesday by two American families whose relatives obtained them while serving in the U.S. military after the war.

The paintings were turned over to the German ambassador to the United States at a ceremony at the State Department. The families who returned the paintings had begun the process after seeing the 2014 movie "The Monuments Men" starring and directed by George Clooney.

Three of the paintings will be returned to the art gallery in Dessau, which had stored them in a salt mine for protection during the war, and two will be returned to the royal family of Hesse.

The three paintings that were stored in the salt mine - a 17th-century Flemish work by Frans Francken III and landscapes by the German artist Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich and Austrian artist Franz de Paula Ferg - were mailed to the United States after the war by a U.S. Army major whose unit was in charge of guarding the Solvayhall salt mine, located about 30 kilometers east of Dessau.

The major told his family that he had won the paintings in a poker game.

The major's step-son, James Hetherington, contacted the Monuments Men Foundation in Dallas, Texas, after keeping the paintings in a closet for years. The movie was based on books written by the head of the foundation, Robert Edsel.

Hetherington told Edsel that his step-father harbored "a sense of resentment about the war" and thus didn't return them himself. But Edsel said when Hetherington saw the film, "he knew what he needed to do."

Edsel said it wasn't possible to determine all the facts about how paintings arrived in the U.S. The important thing is that people took care of them and they are now being returned, he told DPA.

Edsel said the Dessau museum stored more than 200 paintings in the salt mine and the only two ever returned are the ones that Hetherington turned over.

The two paintings that will be returned to the royal family of Hesse had been stored in a bank safe deposit box in Livingston, Montana, ever since the war.

They were stolen from the Kronberg Castle outside Frankfurt, the palace built in 1893 by Queen Victoria's eldest child, who had married Emperor Frederick III of Prussia and later became known as Empress Friedrich.

One is an unattributed copy of a triple portrait of King Charles I of England, originally painted by Anthony van Dyck in 1636. The other is a gilt-framed miniature showing Queen Victoria holding her namesake daughter in a madonna and child pose.

Edsel said the two paintings were bought "for a very small amount of money" by Margaret Indgeborg Reeb, who served in the U.S. military in Germany after the war.

Reeb died in 2005 and the paintings were in her estate, said Mike Holland, her nephew. Holland said he also contacted the foundation after seeing the movie and wanted to make sure the artwork was returned to its proper owner.

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