TALLAHASSEE — It was a scene out of some Hollywood movie: Dark-suited federal agents in equally dark sunglasses converge on a small regional art museum a stone's throw from the state capitol building to retrieve a $2.5 million painting stolen by Nazis from a Jewish family fleeing the Holocaust.
While news crews hover and wire reporters file their briefs, investigators for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents serve legal papers to museum officials who, it appears were apparently unaware that one of the 50 pieces of Baroque art on display had a back story unlike the other pieces.
It's a story of international intrigue complete with questions left unanswered as to why it took so long for the painting to be discovered and retained, the latest chapter in an investigation that found links to some of Europe's preeminent museums including the Louvre.
Agents seized the more than 450-year-old painting that was on display at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science. The seizure comes five months after museum officials and federal agents said they were informed of the piece's dubious history.
The Baroque work, "Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged by a Rascal" by Girolama de' Romani, or "Romanino," was part of a collection paintings on loan from the Pinacoteca de Brera in Milan, Italy.
According to federal officials, the painting was owned by Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, an Italian Jew who was living in Paris. Gentili died of natural causes in 1940. After his death, which came a month before Germany invaded, the painting and over 70 other works were confiscated and later sold by the Vichy Government in 1941.
The grandchildren filed suit in 1997 to get the painting back. Giuseppe's ownership of the painting was well-documented, according to a 100-page federal warrant taking control of the painting until final ownership is determined.
"Our pleadings make it very plain that we believe the heirs of Federico Gentili are the rightful owners," U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsha told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Tallahassee on Friday.
Brogan museum officials have been cooperating with federal agencies since being informed in July that the painting may have been obtained under dubious circumstances. Since then, the federal prosecutor involved in the case said investigators have made a very strong case that painting original belonged to Gentili and now should be returned to his heirs.
The piece is among nearly 2,500 works of art and antiquities Homeland Security officials have repatriated to their countries of origin. The pieces include priceless works of European masters to pre-Columbian artifacts.
"The plundering of cultural property is one of the oldest forms of organized, cross border crimes," said Michael Kennedy, a Department of Homeland Security special agent. "It has become a worldwide phenomena that transcends frontiers. Whether in times of war or peace, the theft and illegal sale of valuable artwork and ancient treasures is a crime against humanity. "
Questions remain: Among them. 'How did the Milan exhibit not know that the piece was part of the Gentili collection, especially after being informed by the family nearly a decade ago? And if museum officials were the littlest bit concerned, why ship it off to a relatively obscure museum in the Florida Panhandle?