The provenance of a masterwork by Cranach the Elder has been thrown into doubt for a second time after it was revealed to have been part of Adolf Hitler's private collection.
It is not yet known if the National Gallery's Cupid Complaining to Venus was looted by the Nazis, bought by Hitler or given to him as a gift. After the Nazis came to power in 1933, they looted the art works of many Jewish families.
The National Gallery bought the work, in which the young god complains to Venus that he has been stung by bees after stealing from a honeycomb, in 1963 from the New York dealers E&A Silbermann. The company, which is no longer in business, stated that it came to it through descendants of the Hartwell family who had acquired it at an auction in Berlin in 1909 from the collection of Emil Goldschmidt.
In 2004, however, Jay Hartwell contacted the gallery to say his mother, the war reporter Patricia Lochridge Hartwell, had only acquired the work in 1945 after being allowed to take it from a warehouse full of art controlled by US forces. She took it back to America and sold it to Silbermann's in 1963 after negotiations to sell it to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art broke down.
The whereabouts of the work during the Third Reich was discovered after the gallery appealed to the public in 2006 for information in the wake of Jay Hartwell's approach.
Birgit Schwartz, an academic who has published a book on Hitler's art, then contacted the National after identifying the Cranach in a photograph of Hitler's private gallery. The faded picture was found in an album, now in the Library of Congress in Washington, which was once part of Hitler's library of 1,200 volumes. Up to now, it had been thought more likely to have been acquired by Hermann Goering, Hitler's deputy and a notorious looter.
A gallery spokesman said that, although the provenance gap between 1909 and 1945 had been partly filled in, it was keen to "establish how and when Cranach's painting came to be in Hitler's collection". He added they had no evidence to suggest it had been looted.
A thorough investigation will follow, he said, and if any evidence emerges in the gallery's research, the matter will be handed over to the Spoliation Advisory Committee. This group, set up by Britain's national museums in 1998, helps to return artworks which were looted during the Holocaust and the Nazi period to owners' descendants.
Painted in 1525, Cupid is among the most impressive of the gallery's nine holdings of work by Cranach the Elder, according to Susan Foister, the director of collections. Although he and his workshop made many versions of his compositions, she said this "may have been the first version of this subject and it is rather special and distinctive for that reason. It is one of the most beautiful renderings of Cupid complaining to Venus, if not the most beautiful."
In March 1999, The Art Newspaper published a list of the gallery's paintings whose whereabouts in 1933-45 were not known. Cupid complaining to Venus was on the list. The question now is who owned the painting, likely to be a wealthy Jewish family in Germany, between the auction of 1909 and the point at which Adolf Hitler acquired it.
The painting is part of a National Gallery touring show and can be viewed at Bristol City Museum until 6 April after which it will be at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne until 13 July and the National from 24 July.Reuse content