A painting that was looted from a Ukrainian art museum during World War II and spent decades in a Connecticut home will be returned to the eastern European nation, U.S. officials said last week.
The 1911 painting by Mikhail Panin, titled "Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina," depicts the 16th-century Russian czar fleeing the Kremlin on horseback. It was part of the permanent exhibit at the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum in the central Ukranian city of Dnipro but disappeared sometime after the Nazis occupied the city in 1941.
The nearly 8-foot tall work resurfaced last year after a retired Ridgefield, Conn. couple brought it to Washington D.C. to be auctioned. The couple, David and Gabby Tracy, said the painting had come with a house they had purchased from a Swiss man in 1962. When the couple moved to a different house in the area in 1987, they paid $37,000 to add a sunroom big enough to display the painting.
"This painting was a beautiful painting, and we treasured it," Gabby Tracy, 84, told The Associated Press on Saturday. "You couldn't help but admire the fine painting, what detail was in Ivan's face."
But as they made plans to move to a condominium in Maine last year, they realized the painting wouldn't fit and hired an auctioning company near Washington to sell the work, which was appraised at about $5,000.
After the auction house added the painting to its catalog, though, an employee received an urgent email from the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum alerting them to the work's provenance and demanding that it not be sold.
FBI officials took custody of the painting and traced it to the Swiss man who sold the Ridgefield home in 1962. Officials didn't release his name but said he moved to the U.S. in 1946 after serving in the Swiss Army. He died in 1986. Gabby Tracy said it's unknown how he obtained the painting, which the couple initially believed was a copy and not a signed original.
After learning it had been stolen, the Tracy couple agreed the painting should be returned to Ukraine. The story particularly moved Gabby, who was born in Slovakia and survived the Holocaust. Her father, Samuel Weiss, died in a concentration camp.
"There was never a question that it was going back. It's just sad that we had to go through this experience," Gabby said. "It's ironic that I should have been so worried about keeping this painting safe."
Federal officials filed paperwork Thursday formally passing the painting from the FBI to the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Washington, which is turning it over to Ukraine's embassy.
"The looting of cultural heritage during World War II was tragic, and we are happy to be able to assist in the efforts to return such items to their rightful owners," U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu said in a statement Friday.
Officials at Ukraine's embassy thanked the Tracy couple and U.S. officials who helped recover the painting. A statement from spokeswoman Natalia Solyeva said it's the first time the two nations have worked together to recover stolen cultural goods.
"The Embassy of Ukraine was excited to work with its American partners on the case of returning the painting to its rightful owners — the people of Ukraine," the statement said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.