U.S. Returns German Paintings Stolen in WWII

"Amalfi Cave" (1845).

Bürkel Gallery in Pirmasens Photo / U.S. Embassy in Germany

(FBI) They were casualties of war—three nineteenth-century oil paintings that went missing from a German air-raid shelter during the waning days of World War II.

Now, after more than six decades on the lam, these cultural treasures are safely back home in the Pirmasens, Germany, museum where they were last displayed.

On Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Germany William Timken presented the Heinrich Bürkel paintings to the Lord Mayor of Pirmasens, Dr. Bernhard Matheis. Joining them for the ceremony were other Pirmasens officials, representatives from the German government, and U.S. diplomats, along with Eric Ives, who heads our Art Theft program in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia Division Special Agent Bob Wittman, FBI Art Crime Team senior investigator.

"After the Hunt" (1830).

Bürkel Gallery in Pirmasens Photo / U.S. Embassy in Germany

"We’re thrilled that these priceless works of art are back in the hands of the German people," said Ives. "Our Art Crime Team was just happy to be able to play a small part in recovering the paintings and facilitating their return to their rightful owners."

Here’s what we know about the journeys of the paintings over the years:

Early to mid-1800s: Burkel paints "After the Hunt" (circa 1830), "Amalfi Cave" (circa 1845), and "The Horse Round-up" (circa 1861-1863).

1925: All three paintings are acquired and subsequently exhibited by the Pirmasens Museum in Germany.

May 13, 1942: To avoid Allied bombings, the paintings were taken to a local air-raid shelter outside of Pirmasens.

"The Horse Round-up" (1861-1867).

Bürkel Gallery in Pirmasens Photo / U.S. Embassy in Germany

September 19, 1945: The museum reports that "about 50 paintings which had been stored in the air-raid shelter at Husterhoh School during the war have been lost during the arrival of the American troops on March 22, 1945." The works were later smuggled to the U.S. by unknown individuals.

Mid-1960s: A New Jersey man purchases the paintings.

Late 1980s: The paintings are handed down to the man’s daughter.

October 25, 2005: The William H. Bunch Auction and Appraisal Company in Pennsylvania advertises the sale of the paintings on the Internet and through the print media. Heike Wittmer, Pirmasens Museum Director and Archivist, spots the paintings for sale and alerts German authorities. U.S. Embassy officials contact the FBI, which halts the sale and takes custody of the paintings from the consignor, who voluntarily agrees to their return to Germany.

Winter, 2006: The paintings are repatriated to Germany by the U.S.