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Arts & Culture

Cummer Museum Feeling Effect Of WWII Nazi Art Theft

Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Several recent blockbuster movies have told stories of Nazis’ stealing artwork and how difficult it’s been for paintings’ rightful owners to recover them after World War II.

The silver screen tale is playing out in real life in Jacksonville. Some items the Nazis stole ended up in the Cummer Museum. Last week, Cummer Curator Holly Keris shared her experiences at a New York University symposium on art crimes.

Over the last couple years, the Cummer Museum has been approached three times by families claiming a piece displayed in the gallery for decades belonged to them and was stolen by the Nazis.

Keris said, “It’s very rewarding when you go through the process and you’re able to concur that these pieces do indeed rightfully belong to someone else.”

But the reward stops at that warm-and-fuzzy feeling. Financially, these discoveries are a blow to the museum’s bottom line, she says.

“If you have made an investment in something that, it was taken from somebody else, then, yes, you’re out that investment,” Keris said.

The museum has returned two pieces to their rightful owners since the mid-90s. Most recently, in April, the Cummer decided to buy a painting from a family so it could stay. Keris says many visitors know and love the Baroque still life called “Vanitas.”

“[The painting] is beautiful in and of its own right, but it’s really layered with a lot of deeper meaning about the fragility and the impermanence of life,” Keris said.

When the Soviet Union fell, families who owned art before World War II were finally able to access archives that helped them track down their pieces. Keris says former art owners might also be getting ideas from several highly publicized cases, including the ones that have gotten the Hollywood treatment.

Helen Mirren starred in this year’s “Woman in Gold.” Last year, “Monuments Men” told the story of the servicemembers and civilians President Roosevelt sent to Germany to save art from destruction.

Keris says the movies are helping people understand what a complicated issue stolen art can be. Whenever a family approaches the museum with a claim of ownership, a committee begins a painstaking process of verifying its lineage. She says it’s a process the museum is getting more familiar with than it would prefer.