ALEXANDRIA, Virginia — A Holocaust survivor, a prestigious U.S. art gallery and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation have worked together to return to Ukraine a painting of Ivan the Terrible, one of the most ruthless of Russia’s czars, looted from a museum in Dnipro by Nazi invaders during World War II.
The 64-square-foot painting, the “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible before the Oprichnina,” was created in 1911 by artist Mikhail Panin. It depicts Ivan the Terrible fleeing the Kremlin on horseback. The “oprichnina” was a state policy of repression, public execution and confiscation of lands implemented by Ivan the Terrible from 1565 and 1572. The policy was carried out by Russia’s first political police, known as the Oprichniki.
The whereabouts of the painting were unknown until it was sent for auction, in 2017, by its owners, David Tracy and his wife, Gabby, whose father was murdered in a concentration camp while she and other family members suffered, confined in the Jewish ghetto in wartime Budapest.
The Potomack Company auction house in Alexandria, just south of Washington, D.C., conducted research about the painting’s history and discovered it had been stolen by the Germans from the then Dnipropetrovsk Museum after they captured the city, now called Dnipro, in 1941.
They got in touch with the museum, which confirmed the theft in 1941 and sent an email pleading: “Please stop selling this painting at auction!!! According to the international rules of restitution of stolen works of art, the picture should return to Ukraine.” The museum also sent a black and white photograph of the painting on display in 1929 to back its claim.
On Sept. 9, it began its journey home when it was handed over to Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United States Valeriy Chaly at a ceremony at the Potomac Company’s premises.
The Tracys had been unaware the painting was stolen and said it was one of a number that were left with the house by its previous owners when they bought it in 1987 in the town of Ridgefield in the state of Connecticut.
They sent it for auction to the Potomac Company when they decided to move out of their house and realized the massive painting – it is 2.4 meters tall and even wider – and other works of art and furniture they owned would not fit into their new home.
In similar cases where stolen art items have been identified the owners have sometimes tried to prevent transfer of the works to those claiming ownership or have attempted to get financial compensation.
But when the Tracys found out their painting’s connection to Ukraine, they enthusiastically worked with the FBI, and Jessie Liu, U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, and the Ukrainian embassy to complete legal formalities for its repatriation.
The Tracys, who now live in Portland, Maine, could not travel to the ceremony but watched the proceedings via Skype. David’s daughter, Jenny Pingle, represented them at the event in Alexandria and The Kyiv Post later spoke to them by telephone.
Gabby Tracy, now 85, was born in former Czechoslovakia in a town now in Slovakia called Vranov na Toplou. After the Nazis occupied the country and the persecution of Jews began, her family fled to Hungary.
From left, FBI agent Timothy Dunham, Jenny Pingle, Ukraine Ambassador to the United States Valeriy Chaly, Jessie Liu, Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein stand in front of the repatriated painting the “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible before the Oprichnina.” (Askold Krushelnycky)
Although allied to Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Jews in Hungary were mostly shielded from the Nazi extermination campaign against them until the last year of the war when Gabby’s father died in a concentration camp. She and the rest of her family were herded into Budapest’s Jewish ghetto. They were alive at the end of the war but had contracted tuberculosis and spent a long time recovering from the disease and eventually came to the United States.
Gabby became a teacher but later became a real estate developer. Her husband, David, 84, was a Wall Street financier. He said: “This painting was a beautiful painting, and we treasured it. You couldn’t help but admire the fine painting, what detail was in Ivan’s face.”
Gabby said that when the couple found out the painting had been stolen from Ukraine “there was never a question that it was going back.:
“We’re very happy that the Ukrainian people will get this painting back,” she said. “I hope the return of this work will go a little way to building good relations between our peoples. I also hope that one day we can go to Ukraine and see it hanging in its proper home.”
Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, owner of the Potomack Company said: “Part of reason that the Tracys were happy the painting was going back to Ukraine is, I think, because Mrs. Tracy is a Holocaust survivor and she understands the crimes that were committed during World II and the importance of returning stolen objects.”
She said that before its history was known, the gallery estimated the painting would have fetched thousands of dollars, rather than tens of thousands, at auction. “We were in awe of the painting’s size and the subject matter – it’s very imposing. We think that it is important that these pieces be returned, and it’s gratifying that our research reunited art with its original caretakers.”
The Ukrainian ambassador called the painting’s return a “demonstration of unity and solidarity with the Ukrainian people.” He thanked the Tracys for what he called their “unique gesture.”
Chaly suggested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky take the painting back with him to Ukraine after his expected visit to the U.S. later this month. He also said he hoped the Ukrainian government will be able to bring the Tracys to Ukraine to see the painting that was a part of their lives for more than three decades back in its rightful home.
Chaly said the Russian government had objected to the painting being sent to Ukraine, but U.S. authorities had dismissed the attempts to impede its transfer.
At the ceremony special agent Timothy Dunham from the FBI’s Art Crime Team said: “Art crime is one of the FBI’s lesser known priorities, but it is an important one given the cultural implications. I think Mrs. Tracy found it very rewarding to be a part of something like this — returning stolen property.”
The FBI believes that after it was stolen by Germans in Ukraine, the painting came into the possession of a Swiss soldier who moved to the U.S. in 1946 and sold the Ridgefield house with the work in it in 1962. The FBI did not release his name but said he died in 1986 and how he came to be in possession of the painting or how he transported it to America is unknown.