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Missing for Decades – A Beautiful Cranach Painting Returns to Poland

August 21, 2012

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Madonna Under the Fir Tree, c. 1510.

The Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced the return of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s remarkably beautiful painting Madonna under the Fir Tree to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) Cathedral.  The painting had been removed for protection during World War II and allegedly returned some years later.  In fact, a forgery had been substituted for the real painting, according to a fascinating report on the History Blog, while the original disappeared into a private Swiss collection:

During its war-time vicissitudes, the painting had been broken horizontally in two pieces, so diocesan officials commissioned Siegfried Zimmer, a priest, art collector and painter, to restore it. Siegfried Zimmer was also German. Between 1946 and 1947, while he restored the Cranach, he had a forgery made. He gave the fake to the diocese and then moved to Berlin with the authentic Madonna under the Fir Tree.

The fraud wasn’t discovered until a Polish conservator examined the painting in 1961 and found a nasty surprise. For decades the Madonna was missing. Rumors of it being sold in the private art collection market popped up on occasion, but the authorities were never able to track it down. Finally the painting found its way into the clutches of, you guessed it, an anonymous Swiss collector who kept it on the down low until his recent death. He bequeathed it to the Diocese of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs learned of the painting’s location this past March and negotiated its return.

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