(Note: Originally posted 7.24.12)

Bring me the head of John the Baptist. Or at least return the looted painting of it.
Usually when we hear about looted art from World War II, we think about Nazis swiping property from families displaced by the government’s brutal policies or German soldiers pillaging national museums after rolling tanks into town.

But earlier this month, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations put the finishing touches on an investigation that returned a painting that had been owned by Frederick the Great of Prussia and stolen by a Soviet general at the close of World War II.

Frederick was not longer around, and neither was Prussia, for that matter, so they gave it to Germany.
The recently repatriated painting is described as a contemporaneous copy of a Peter Paul Rubens piece that showed the beheading of John the Baptist. The Rubens original is believed to be forever gone, and the valuable copy in question hung the Frederick’s gallery at Sanssouci palace in Potsdam.

In 1943, the painting was removed from Fred’s Sanssouci museum and taken to the Palace of Rheinsburg, where it was stolen two years later.

Then in fall of 2010 when someone apparently tried to sell it through a Los Angeles auction house.
According to customs officials, agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations Los Angeles heard about the sale, and a quick search of a database showed the German government had reported that the painting missing.

The investigation that followed traced the painting back to a Los Angeles-based family, who claimed the work wasn’t the missing Ruben and that there were other copies across the world.

Customs agents pressed on, and during the probe, Dr. Samuel Wittwer, of the Potsdam Sanssouci Museum in Germany, traveled with a HSI special agent to the auction gallery and determined that the painting was, in fact, the one stolen from the German museum, according to customs officials.

According to officials, when agents went back to the family to discuss their findings. family members told the special agents that the painting was taken by a Russian general during World War II, according to the HSI account. The general then gave the painting to the daughter of a Soviet official, who later sold the painting to the family. The family brought the painting to the United States when they moved here in the late 1970s.

“As supporters of the arts, the family was happy to return the painting to its rightful owners,” the HSI release on the matter states.

Earlier this month, HSI Frankfurt Attaché Michael Shea and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Philip D. Murphy took part in a repatriation ceremony with the director of the Potsdam Sanssouci Museum.

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