Stolen Rubens Returns to Germany After 80 Years

Looted from Friedenstein Castle at the end of World War II, a rare oil sketch by Peter Paul Rubens is being repatriated from a Buffalo museum.

Jun 24, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies

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Eighty years after it was stolen, a rare oil sketch by Peter Paul Rubens is returning to Friedenstein Castle in Germany. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (1621) is one of five oil sketches by Rubens illegally removed from the castle at the end of World War II. The Buffalo AKG Art Museum in New York, which acquired the Rubens without knowing it had been looted, agreed to negotiate its return to Germany.

 

From a German Castle to a New York Museum—and Back Again

Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany. Source: Wikipedia.

 

Located in Gotha, Germany, Friedenstein Castle is one of the largest palaces built during the early Baroque era. The castle belonged to the dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha until the duchy lost its titles and powers during the 1918 revolution in Germany. The palace complex was then turned into a public museum to display the ducal family’s repossessed art collection, which included five oil sketches by the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens. In 1945, during the final weeks of World War II, representatives from the disgraced ducal family returned to Friedenstein Castle. They illegally removed several valuable artworks from the castle’s collection, including three of the five oil sketches by Rubens, which were sold.

 

One of these oil sketches, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, ended up in a New York gallery, which sold it to a museum in Buffalo in 1952. The Buffalo AKG Art Museum, a successor to the Albright Art Gallery, was unaware the work had been looted at the time of purchase. It considered selling the Rubens oil sketch in 2021, at which time researchers at Christie’s pointed out its troubled provenance. Instead of offering the work at auction, the Buffalo museum reached a private sales agreement with the Friedenstein Foundation.

 

Repatriated Rubens Belongs to a Series of Sketches

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus by Peter Paul Rubens, 1621. Source: Christie’s.

 

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Saint Gregory of Nazianzus is one of twenty-two surviving oil sketches created by Rubens in preparation for his first major commission: to decorate the ceilings of Antwerp’s Jesuit Church of St. Charles Borromeo. The thirty-nine ceiling pieces depicted dramatic biblical scenes, saints, and other notable religious figures. Upon completion, the Rubens ceiling became famous, making the Antwerp church a 17th-century tourist destination. However, in 1718, the church caught fire after being struck by lightning. The Rubens ceiling was destroyed in the blaze.

 

From the early 19th century, the Friedenstein Castle collection contained five of Rubens’s preparatory oil sketches from this series. Now, after the return of Saint Gregory of NazianzusFriedenstein Castle has three of the five back in its possession. The other two sketches, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil—which were seized from the castle by the Soviet troops who occupied it in 1945—were returned in 1958. Two of the original five remain missing: The Prophet Elijah on the Golden Chariot and Saint Augustine.

 

Amicable Sale Agreement Reached After Negotiations

The Ducal Museum building at Friedenstein Castle. Source: Friedenstein Foundation in Gotha.

 

After over two years of negotiations, the Friedenstein Foundation agreed to purchase the Rubens oil sketch from the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. Under the agreement, the museum will receive a low seven-digit figure, which was donated primarily by the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation. The exact sale price has not been confirmed, but it is far below market value for comparable works by Rubens. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus will soon go on permanent display at the Ducal Museum, which is part of the Friedenstein Castle complex.

 

Martin Hoernes, the general secretary of the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, explained the significance of the Rubens oil sketch’s repatriation: “Friedenstein Castle’s collections suffered more than most German cultural institutions from embezzlement, war losses, and removals to the Soviet Union. The recovery of the Rubens sketch will surely pave the way for further returns in which, depending on the circumstances of the loss, the amount paid is not a reflection of the market value but a fair settlement.”

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.