RICHMOND, VA.- Roy Proctor of the Times-Dispatch reported that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has concluded that a French Renaissance portrait that entered its collections as an anonymous gift in 1950 had been stolen from an Austrian Jew by Hitlerís Gestapo six years before and that the museumís trustees voted unanimously yesterday to remove from its collection the small oil-on-panel work, "Portrait of Jean díAlbon," which is attributed to Dutch-born French School painter Corneille de Lyon, and to return it to its rightful owner in the United Kingdom. Museum Director Michael Brand said that, faced with compelling evidence, returning the painting is "simply the correct thing to do."
Currently the painting, from the 16th-century, has been in a storage area together with other older French paintings, since the museumís original French galleries were dismantled in 1984 to accommodate the building of the West Wing. The Museum will put the painting, ďPortrait of Jean díAlbonĒ on view for two weeks only beginning this Wednesday in the North Wingís rotunda before shipping it off to its owner, Kurt H. Schindler, who lives in England.
"Iím absolutely thrilled and so is my wife," Schindler, who is 78, said yesterday by telephone from his home in Hampshire.
Although Schindler did not inherit the painting directly from its owner, Austrian collector Julius Priester, Schindler is now the sole executor, heir and beneficiary of Priesterís estate, according to the museum. Priester stored his art collection in Vienna before he fled Austria for Mexico in 1938 in the face of increasing Nazi aggression against Jews. His collection was seized by the Gestapo in 1944.
The Virginia Museum had no inkling it harbored a stolen painting when it received a telephone call, followed quickly by a fax, from Schindler on Feb. 17, according to Kathleen Morris, the museumís associate director in charge of collections management.
"This has been an enormous sleuthing job," said Morris, who worked in tandem with Karen Daly, the museumís assistant registrar and Nazi-era provenance administrator, to assemble evidence in the case.
"We took this seriously from the very beginning. We knew, based on the nature of Mr. Schindlerís inquiry, that he had a serious claim. He had names, dates, facts and, most important, a photograph of the painting. We did not know about any of these documents before Mr. Schindler brought them to our attention.
"In 1954, a reproduction of the stolen portrait was published in a Vienna police report, along with reproductions of other paintings from the Priester collection that had been stolen in 1944. The Viennese police report did not find its way to the VMFA. The museum first learned of the 1954 police report from Mr. Schindler."
The painting was bought from New Yorkís Newhouse Galleries in December 1949 and entered the museumís collections as an anonymous gift the following year.
Its donor died about that time, Morris said.
When her husband died in 1952, the donor was identified as Wilkins C. Williams, who, with husband Adolph D. Williams, established the museumís large art-purchase endowment fund, which bears their names.
Newhouse Galleries had acquired the painting from Frederick Mont, a dealer alleged to have had ties to other paintings confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, according to the museumís research.
The Virginia Museum painting is one of eight versions of the same image that are attributed to Corneille de Lyon.
"Mr. Schindler had been trying to track down Mr. Priesterís paintings, including this one," Morris said. "He tracked one down at the Louvre, where one of the curators told him that there were many versions and that the one matching his photograph was in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
"The most important evidence is that Mr. Priesterís black-and-white photograph, which dates from the 1920s, matches the painting we had exactly. There is no doubt that photograph is of our painting."
When the painting entered the Virginia Museum collection in 1950, it was valued at $22,500, according to Morris. Corneille de Lyon paintings have fetched between $18,000 and $220,000 at auction in recent years.
Morris wouldnít speculate on the current value of "Portrait of Jean díAlbon."
"Obviously, we will miss this painting," she said. "Even though it hasnít been on view in a while, itís a beautiful painting. If it had remained here, it almost certainly would have gone back on view when our expansion is complete.
"On the other hand, it was clear to us that this painting was stolen during the Nazi era from its rightful owner. We felt strongly that thatís the kind of wrong that had to be righted. So it was not a hard decision in this case.
"It was not only the right thing for us to do. It was the only thing."
Morris said she didnít know if the Virginia Museum would try to buy back the painting if itís put up for sale.
"It depends on when it comes on the market and what the estimate is," Morris said. "We have no idea of what he plans to do with the painting, and thatís not our business."
Schindlerís claim to the painting was pressed on his behalf by the New York State Banking Departmentís Claims Holocaust Processing Office, which has recovered a number of works stolen from Jews by the Nazis since it was founded in 1997.