Famous artwork stolen from Spain!

Murillo - The Return of the Prodigal Son
Murillo – The Return of the Prodigal Son

When I discovered in 2005 that a painting that belongs to a church in Sevilla was sitting in the USA’s national art museum, I grabbed this fine opportunity to stick it to the ol’ USA. And what’s more, the argument makes sense.

Jewish families have been very effective at recovering the art stolen from their families by the Nazis. Why have Spanish politicians been so meek at recovering art stolen from the country by Napoleon? It’s the same meekness we saw at Palomares: “Uh, would you mind, um, cleaning up just a little bit more. I know accidents happen, but you see, there’s still some plutonium here. But if you can’t, then that’s okay.”. Get some cojones, guys, or let us vote for the women of your party. Time to be proud of Spanish heritage and reclaim national patrimony.  I wrote to Spanish institutions for moral support in this venture. I got a CD from one group, the Museo Imaginado. Their article on Napoleon’s pillaging provided a great background for what happened to this painting.

My letter to the National Gallery of Art (Washington):

15 February, 2005

Earl A. Powell, III
National Gallery of Art
Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20565

Dear Mr. Powell,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Hermandad de la Santa Caridad, the brotherhood which built and continues to manage the Santa Caridad Church and Hospital in Sevilla, Spain.

You have in your collection a painting by Bartolomé Murillo, entitled “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. As you are aware, this painting was confiscated from Santa Caridad Church during Napolean’s brief occupation of Spain. Juan Gaitán de Ayala, the Hermano Mayor, requests that this painting be returned to the brotherhood.

According to the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art established in 1998, “If the pre-War owners of art that is found to have been confiscated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted, or their heirs, can be identified, steps should be taken expeditiously to achieve a just and fair solution …”. With museums now committed to full disclosure on the chain of ownership of all works so that property seized during the Nazi occupation can be recovered by their rightful owners, the moral imperative regarding stolen works is self-evident.

The French occupation was equally brief, the act of robbery equally clear. It is well documented that Marshal Soult took this painting to France in 1810 as well as three other Murillo paintings hanging in the Church. Only two paintings from Murillo’s group of six “Mercy paintings”, due to their large size, were left in the Church. During Napolean’s occupation, the Spanish artistic patrimony was devastated, as countless paintings of great importance were shipped to France. Immediately following the defeat of Napolean, many paintings were returned. Since then, others have been returned, most notably Murillo’s “The Immaculate Conception”, returned from the Louvre Museum to Spain in 1940.

I’d like to note that Murillo’s mercy paintings were commissioned by Miguel de Mañara specifically for the walls of the Santa Caridad Church on which they hung. The construction of the church was completed at the same time Murillo completed these works. Miguel de Mañara was the Hermano Mayor of the brotherhood: his depth and breadth of charity was astounding. The church’s design and commissioned works all reflect Mañara’s guiding hand and unified message to the brothers. The messages contained in Murillo’s works of mercy are the messages that Mañara wanted in the Church to remind the brothers of their efforts; “clothing the naked” in the case of the painting in question. Above the intended position of these works are mouldings containing scrolls inscribed with the same messages of mercy. The brotherhood continues to pray in this church.

I’m grateful that the Avalon Foundation retrieved this great work from the private sector. I recognize that in the National Gallery of Art, the painting has a wide audience, but whether the painting belongs in the Church or in a museum should be the decision of the brotherhood.

I very much appreciate your consideration of this issue. I can be reached at the above telephone and address.

Best regards,

Reply from the National Gallery of Art:

March 15, 2005

Dear Mr. Mojo,

This is in response to your letter on behalf of the Hermandad de la Santa Caridad requesting the return of the Bartolome Murillo painting entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son.

The National Gallery of Art (the “Gallery”) is committed to ensuring that it has rightful ownership of all objects in its collection. We also sympathize with the wishes of the brotherhood which built and continues to manage the Santa Caridad Church and Hospital in Sevilla, Spain where the painting originally hung. At the same time, the Gallery must honor its fiduciary duties to preserve and protect the works in its collection, all of which have been donated to the Gallery or purchased with donated funds. This duty requires that any decision to acquire or dispose of a work of art must be taken only after careful consideration and in accordance with the laws and bylaws governing the Gallery’s operations.

The Gallery conducts continuous research on the provenance of the works in its collection and publishes and regularly updates its findings on its Web site. As is reflected on the Gallery’s Web site concerning The Return of the Prodigal Son, we are aware that the painting was commissioned for the Hospital de la Caridad in Seville; that it was removed by government decree to Alcazar, Seville, in 1810; and that it was subsequently taken to Paris by Marshall Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, Duke of Dalmatia. Thereafter, it was sold on three separate occasions; first in 1835 to George Granville, 2d Duke of Sutherland, Stafford House, London (where it was inherited by George Granville, 5th Duke of Sutherland); then in January 1948 to Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd, London; and ultimately to the Avalon Foundation of New York in December of 1948. The Avalon Foundation then gifted the painting to the National Gallery of Art where it has been part of our collection for over fifty years. In accordance with applicable law, this gift, coming after a proper sale, establishes the Gallery as the rightful owner. Moreover, any applicable statute of limitations governing ownership of this painting would have run long ago. Indeed, I note that you do not dispute that the Gallery is the rightful owner, but instead request that the painting be returned because of its history and affiliation with the Santa Caridad Church.

Let me assure you that the Gallery fully appreciates both the historical significance of the painting and the affection for it that is held by the Hermandad. As you acknowledge in your letter, however, in its present location the painting is seen by a wide audience where it is greatly admired and enjoyed. In light of our fiduciary obligations to preserve such works in our collection, the Gallery cannot accede to your request that we dispose of the painting. Be assured, though, that as part of the Gallery’s collection, the painting will be preserved and exhibited under the highest possible museum standards, where it is certain to continue to bring joy to many future generations.


Earl A. Powell III

Postscript: After receiving this letter, I instantly called up Earl on the phone, and threatened to drag his gallery into a big, nasty lawsuit unless he gave me one of the lesser paintings in his vault. He caved and sent me, express mail, an etching of a fox terrier from Jackson Pollack’s early puppy dog period.

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