Sketch of saint painted by Peter Paul Rubens missing since after World War II to be returned

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A sketch of St. Gregory of Nazianzus painted by baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens is headed back to Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany after it went missing at the end of World War II.

The Rubens artwork, dated to 1621, had been missing along with four other sketches of saints by the artist since the end of World War II, the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation that helped pay to recover the sketch and the Friedenstein Stiftung Gotha association in charge of the museums hosted on the castle property said in a release Friday.

The sketch of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, along with a still-missing sketch of the biblical prophet Elijah and a sketch of St. Augustine currently being displayed in Zurich, Switzerland, was taken out of the castle at the end of World War II to keep them away from the Red Army and were sold to American buyers by a former German duchess related to British royalty.

From there, the sketch of St. Gregory of Nazianzus was sold by the E. and A. Silberman Gallery in New York City to the Albright Gallery in Buffalo. It was passed down to the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, a successor institution to the Albright Gallery. The Buffalo museum moved to sell the sketch on the market in 2020, but auction house Christie’s convinced them to sell it to Gotha.

“Christie’s had already returned a work of Gotha provenance in 2006, and so there is a sensitivity in our house for the collection’s history,” Christie’s Deputy Chairman of 20th and 21st Century Art Dirk Boll said.

On the Buffalo museum’s part, the historical sketch did not fit the museum’s modern and contemporary art focus, and “hadn’t been on view for a long time and we didn’t foresee a context in which it would be shown,” Buffalo AKG Art Museum Chief Curator Cathleen Chaffee told the New York Times. It is receiving a “a low seven-digit figure,” for the work.

The sketches of St. Basil and St. Athanasius that round out the set of five were taken from Gotha by the Red Army. The Soviet Union returned them to East Germany as part of a mass repatriation of looted art in 1958.

The sketch of “The Prophet Elijiah on the Golden Chariot” was sold and passed into the collection of an Atlanta man, George Baer, before then being loaned to the National Gallery of Art in D.C. by no later than 1997. Its current whereabouts are unknown, and the sketch was not at the National Gallery as of 2021 according to a German database for lost art from the country.

All five, part of a larger set of 22 surviving sketches from an even larger set of 39 Rubens sketches of saints and religious figures, had been kept in Friedenstein Castle for centuries. Rubens personally painted the 39 sketches as models for the ceiling of a Jesuit cathedral in Antwerp, Belgium; the church burnt down following a 1718 lightning strike.

The Rubens sketch of Elijiah was bought in 1721 and passed down to Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, who bought the other four sketches in 1802. From him, the castle and sketches passed into the hands of descendants and then to relatives, the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

One branch of the house, the British royal family, descends from Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, husband to the U.K.’s Queen Victoria. She was also the grandmother of the last duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

The British royal family changed its name to Windsor due to tensions with Germany surrounding World War I.

Both Friedenstein Castle and the art within passed out of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family’s ownership after duchies and other noble titles were abolished in Germany in 1918 following the end of World War I. The art was then displayed in Friedenstein Castle by an independent foundation until the end of World War II.

The last duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha convinced American troops to let her take some of the art out of the castle even though it no longer belonged to the defunct ducal family, according to the German database. The three Rubens pieces she took were split, with the sketch of St. Augustine being sold to a Swiss collection in 1953.

For now, regaining ownership of the sketch of St. Gregory of Nazianzus is enough for Friedenstein Stiftung Gotha. It is negotiating with a Zurich museum to try and temporarily display the Rubens sketch of St. Augustine in Gotha.

The association “aims to restore the historical integrity of the collection, especially with regard to this highlight, the set of five sketches by Rubens. … I am delighted, therefore, that with ‘Saint Gregory of Nazianzus’, one of the lost works has found its way back to Friedenstein,” Tobias Pfeifer-Heike, director of the association, said.

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