The Odyssey of a Stolen Cranach Painting


Two years later, Koepplin traveled to Geneva on behalf of this collector. There, he met two men in a hotel, who then led him to a nearby house. It was here that Koepplin saw Lucas Cranach the Elder's "Madonna under the Fir Trees." Koepplin says that he was and remains "absolutely certain" that it was the original. "But I was also certain in my refusal to confirm that to these gentlemen." They wanted him to confirm the picture's authenticity, but Koepplin refused -- and the painting disappeared off the market again.

At the time, the painting had yet to be officially declared missing. That didn't happen until 1981, when the Catholic Church indicated it might even be interested in buying it back. The Church's offer of 1.5 million deutsche marks was apparently not enough, and middlemen demanded 10 times that figure. Back in the 1970s, the Madonna had been offered to state museums in Berlin and Munich.

In 1985, the German weekly magazine Stern reported that the painting had been in the hands of a realtor in Regensburg until 1973, when he had exchanged the Cranach Madonna for a Rubens landscape, which turned out to be fake. A year later, the celebrity glossy magazine Bunte claimed the picture was in Switzerland and that the magazine was "negotiating with middlemen" itself. And yet the Madonna never turned up.

A Surprising though Suspect Return

That changed this summer, when it was handed over. According to the Polish Foreign Ministry, the abducted painting had finally found its way home. The official end to this complicated case is as incredibly simple as it is wonderful: The heirs of a Swiss art collector donated the Cranach painting to the Diocese of St. Gallen, which then handed it over to the Catholic Church in Wroclaw.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for the diocese won't reveal the identity of the painting's last owner, who died last year, claiming the handover is akin to a confession and therefore confidential.

For the time being, it can only be assumed that the Madonna that has been in Wroclaw since July 27 is actually the real one.

Experts still have to appraise -- and hopefully confirm -- the painting's authenticity as well as the stops it made during its mysterious odyssey. At least that is the demand of Heidelberg art historian Michael Hofbauer, an art historian based in the western German city of Heidelberg who heads the research databank -- and thinks the official version of the story leaves too many questions unanswered. Just like other spectacular cases, he says, "criminal and art history are sometimes interwoven."

The squinting Madonna painted by Kupke in 1946 has now been removed from the cathedral, although it remains in Wroclaw. The Church is hanging on to it -- just in case.

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