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Published: Friday, 12/24/2010

Museum to return art stolen in WWII

The Toledo Museum of Art has agreed to surrender an 18th-century dinnertable centerpiece that was recently proved as stolen from a German castle during World War II, museum and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced Thursday.

The white porcelain artwork, "Nereid Sweetmeat Stand," depicts a mermaid raising up a sweetmeat stand in the form of a shell. It was one of four such centerpieces in the 2,200-piece Swan Service dinner set for 100 commissioned in 1737 by Count Heinrich von Bruehl, a statesman in the court of Saxony.

Museum officials agreed to return the centerpiece to the Dresden Museum, where it was once on permanent loan, after the German government filed a claim for it this summer, said Kelly Garrow, the museum's director of communications. The Toledo museum bought the piece in 1956 from the Rosenberg & Stiebel gallery in New York.

Ms. Garrow said the museum paid "less than $10,000" for the centerpiece, and was unaware at the time of purchase that someone had snatched it from a castle where it was hidden during the war.

Three weeks ago, museum officials saw evidence confirming that the piece was stolen.

"The object made its way into the legitimate art market, it went to a very legitimate dealer, and it made it to a very legitimate museum," Ms. Garrow said, "and for over 50 years nobody said anything."

Museum Director Brian Kennedy said this is the first time the museum has had to return artwork that was discovered to be stolen. Object "repatriation" is relatively common in the museum world.

"The right thing to do now is to return it to its rightful owner," Mr. Kennedy said.

The customs office said the mermaid stand is valued at more than $1 million. However, the museum estimated the value at $300,000.

For now the mermaid centerpiece will remain on display in the museum's rotunda area until a formal repatriation ceremony can be held in late January at the Toledo museum. It is to include visitors from the Dresden Museum and U.S. customs officials.

Ms. Garrow said the Toledo and Dresden museum had planned a joint announcement about the object's repatriation to Germany, but federal officials alerted the media Thursday upon receiving the museum's signed surrender documents.

"It is just extremely disappointing that [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] chose to score some political points for themselves by breaking this" news, Ms. Garrow said.

Department officials could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Kennedy said the Toledo museum is in talks with the New York gallery about possible compensation for the artwork. The museum could also file an insurance claim.

As a goodwill gesture, the Dresden museum offered to temporarily loan Toledo some of its artwork, Ms. Garrow said.

The German count who commissioned the Swan Service was the founding patron of the Meissen porcelain factory, and ordered the factory's chief modeler to create a royal dinner service.

Toledo's mermaid centerpiece belonged to the von Bruehl family, and in 1920 the Dresden Museum received it and 24 other pieces from the Swan Service on permanent loan, according to customs officials.

These pieces and 12 others were boxed up and hidden in a castle in Reichstaedt during World War II.

At the war's conclusion, the stand and several other pieces were found missing.

Customs officials said the mermaid stand was purchased from a European art dealer in 1955 and imported to the United States.

The mermaid centerpiece is roughly 14 inches tall and was one of four in the original collection that are considered masterpieces.

The stand in Toledo is one of two that survive; the other is in poor condition in Berlin, Ms. Garrow said.

"There are pieces from the Swan Service all over the world but this is a centerpiece and one of the showiest pieces of the collection," Ms. Garrow said.

The Toledo museum believes the effort to repatriate the centerpiece was set in motion this year by a German public television documentary about the Swan Service for the 300th anniversary of Meissen. The program focused on the mermaid stand in the Toledo collection, and the filmmakers traveled to Toledo in April.

Shortly after the documentary aired, the museum received word that the Germans had filed their claim for the mermaid stand. Ms. Garrow said it has been widely known for years that Toledo had a Swan Service centerpiece.

"Everybody in the art world knew that we had it, and the only reason I can think of why the Germans asked to have it back is because of the 300th anniversary and because of the interest that the documentary sparked."

Three weeks ago museum officials took the mermaid stand to the Cleveland Museum of Art to undergo X-rays and to be photographed. The stand was determined to be the stolen piece from Germany based on a study of firing cracks in the porcelain.

This piece has five such cracks, which can be likened to fingerprints, and they matched the photographed cracks of the centerpiece on display at the Dresden museum in the 1930s.

Mr. Kennedy said that evidence appeared irrefutable.

"We will return it to the director of the Dresden museum," he said.

The museum also owns a disputed art work of Italian origin that the museum declined to identify.

Contact JC Reindl at: jreindl@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.

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