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Painting returned to rightful owners

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Once Nazi loot, the Francois Boucher painting "Les Amoureux Jeunes" has been part of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts collection since 1993.

Once Nazi loot, the Francois Boucher painting “Les Amoureux Jeunes” has been part of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts collection since 1993.

Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News

A small painting stolen by the Nazis in 1940 was returned to its rightful owners Thursday during a special presentation at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

"Les Amoureux Jeunes (The Young Lovers)" by Francois Boucher (1707-70), a Rococo period piece, has been part of the UMFA's collection since 1993. Recently, however, the painting was discovered to be one of the many artworks purloined by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering from French art dealer Andr Jean Seligmann after he escaped to America.

"The evidence was overwhelming that the painting was stolen," David Dees, executive director of the UMFA, said at the beginning of the presentation. "It had to be returned."

The museum has not released the name of the original donor.

Seligmann's only daughter, Mrs. Claude Seligmann Delibes, and the surviving widow of his only son, Mrs. Suzanne Geiss (Seligmann) Robbins, expressed deep gratitude to the museum and its staff for their ethical handling of the investigation and their willingness to return the art.

Delibes, whose emotions were high, referred to the staff as "adorable." After sharing several anecdotes about her father, she confessed that until recently she had been only partially concerned with the lost artworks. "I was so busy with life, running my business and raising my children." However, since 1999, when she and Robbins had their first stolen piece returned to them, Delibes has become more active in the search.

"Of the 400 works that were taken, 25 percent have been retrieved," said Robbins.

David Carroll, director of collections at the UMFA, shared with the audience a brief history of the painting's journey: from an abandoned train car in Germany at the end of WWII to the mysterious reappearance and purchase by New York's Newhouse Gallery in 1967, to the selling of the painting to a Utah collector and his donation to the museum in 1993.

Both Carroll and Robbins made mention of Nancy Yeide, of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who stumbled across "Les Jeunes Amoureux" listed on UMFA's Web site, knew that it was a stolen item and set in motion the reunion of the painting with its owners.

After some initial inquiries, Carroll contacted Sarah Jackson at the Art Loss Register in London, England, asking for a thorough investigation. A year later, Jackson failed to find any evidence that the painting had ever been returned to and legitimately sold by the Seligmann family.

The painting's whereabouts from the time of its disappearance from the Nazi train in 1945 to its re-emergence in New York will probably never be known, said Carroll.

Given the outcome of the investigation, the UMFA could not claim to have rightful ownership and, on that basis, initiated the decision to return the painting to Seligmann's heirs. "It was a simple decision for us in the end," said Carroll.

At the conclusion of her remarks, Robbins pointed to the audience and begged everyone present "to honor the museum for what they have done."

When asked what they will do with the painting when they get back to New York, Delibes said simply, "We don't know."

E-mail: gag@desnews.com