Santa returns to France in search of his other half

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AN INTERNATIONAL search has been mounted for the missing half of a painting believed to be of St Nicholas - better known as Santa Claus - that two soldiers rescued from a burning cathedral in wartime France 81 years ago.

The painting came to light recently in Australia, when the Australian War Memorial in Canberra invited Dominique Girard, the French ambassador, to open an exhibition on Australians who fought in France during the First World War.

Mr Girard was able to offer an unexpected addition to the exhibition. It was a painting - or, at least, half a painting - that Jum Chataway, a 68-year-old former Royal Australian Air Force pilot, had taken to the French embassy in Canberra, asking if it could be returned to its home in the village of Bapaume, in northern France.

His father, Lieutenant Vincent Chataway, was stationed near Bapaume with the ninth battalion of the Australian Infantry Force in 1916. The Australians pushed into Bapaume in March 1917 as the Germans retreated, leaving the town in ruins. According to the account passed down in the family, Lt Chataway and an Australian mate rushed into the village burning church and rescued the painting from a wall.

Unable to manage it on the battlefield, they removed it from its frame and cut it neatly in two, taking one half each. The re-framed top half has hung in various Chataway homes in Aus- tralia ever since. But the whereabouts of the bottom half - and the identity of the soldier who took it - remain a mystery.

Vincent Chataway died in 1934 from tuberculosis, believed to be the result of gas poisoning in the trenches during the war. Jum Chataway was four when his father died. Years later, his mother told him what amounts to the only clue suggesting that the missing half may still be in Australia.

After the war, his parents were standing on a railway station in southern Queensland when Vincent Chataway recognised a man on the opposite platform. He said to his wife: "That man has the other half of the painting." For some unexplained reason, he did not approach the man, nor did he pass on his name.

So, while the incident suggests that the mystery soldier survived the war, no one knows if he actually took his half of the painting back to Australia with him or abandoned it somewhere in France. About 10 years ago, Jum Chataway travelled through towns and outposts in southern Queensland, where the ninth battalion was originally recruited, asking locals if they knew any survivors from the battalion. He drew a blank.

Now approaching his 70s, he believes the time has come to send his half of the painting back to Bapaume. "I've never felt I actually owned it," he said. "I was always the caretaker. I felt I'd better do this soon, otherwise it might be left to others who wouldn't do it."

The upper half of the oil painting, in excellent condition, shows a white- bearded figure looking down, his arms outstretched, flanked by two other figures in turbans. Maud Girard-Geslan, the wife of the French ambassador and an art historian, believes the work was painted in the 19th century and that the central figure is St Nicholas. She says the missing lower half would probably show three children receiving his blessing.

Peter Burness, head curator at the Australian War Memorial, said: "The painting is very competent, although probably not of great artistic value. Its value is more historic. Thousands of Australians died near Bapaume and are buried in war graves there. The mayor is very excited that this painting is finally going back. It would be even better if the other half could be found and returned with it."