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Museum Returns Art To Rightful Owner After Research Project

IU Art Museum Program "The Spoils of War" is a self-guided tour which details art looted during World War II.

A research project conducted by an IU Art Museum curator has led to some startling discoveries – including a realization that some art the museum thought it owned actually belongs to someone else.

If you have walked through the IU Art Museum many times before, “The Spoils of War” program may bring you back. But this time you may notice a painting is missing and others are tagged with new information about their background.

The program grew out of Curator Jenny McComas’ research project aimed at educating audiences about the looting and destruction of fine art during World War II.

“The largest surprise occurred just shortly after we began researching and it came in form of a letter from a museum in Berlin requesting that we return a painting to them,” McComas said.

The “Flagellation of Christ” panel from an altarpiece around the 1480s was evidently stolen at the end of the war by an allied soldier when the museum was not staffed and Berlin was chaotic. McComas says IU Art Museum officials returned the painting this past summer — but there was still a question about others.

“It also confirms to us that our pieces have clean histories and we don’t have to worry about them in the future,” she said. “But what I have discovered is many of our pieces belong to Jewish owners during the war and very easily could have been looted.”

  • Master of the Holy Kinship

    Image 1 of 3

    Photo: Michael Cavanagh and Kevin Montague

    Master of the Holy Kinship, The Resurrection, late 15th century, oil on panel, Given in memory of Mrs. Nicholas H. Noyes.

  • Portrait of a Lady

    Image 2 of 3

    Photo: Michael Cavanagh and Kevin Montague

    Franz Seraph von Lenbach, Portrait of a Lady, 1895, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Felix Haurowitz, IU Art Museum.

  • Oil on Canvas

    Image 3 of 3

    Photo: Michael Cavanagh and Kevin Montague

    Fernand Léger, Composition, 1924, oil on canvas, Jane and Roger Wolcott Memorial, Gift of Thomas T. Solley, IU Art Museum.

The Stories Behind the Art

Luckily the art was not looted – some pieces may even have been rescued at the last minute.

“One of my goals was to help people learn more about the ways in which wars really effects human culture, the destructive aspects of war on fine art and other cultural achievements,” McComas said.

Through the course of her research, McComas unearthed many stories behind the works of art.

Inner-disciplinary programs coordinator Natasha Ritsma is using the program to teach a class at IU.

“As soon as they heard the stories behind the works of art and learned a little bit more about the works of art where they came from and why they were created and how they ended up in Indiana, I think they became especially interested,” Ritsma said.

The program continues through the rest of the fall semester, and many of the pieces will remain on display as part of the permanent collection.

Joe Hren

Anchor, Indiana Newsdesk - WTIU & WFIU News. Follow him on Twitter @Joe_Hren

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  • Provenancier

    I believe the term you’re looking for is “inter-disciplinary.” 

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