The stolen art that found its way home

LOST TREASURES A Jewish family's paintings looted in the Second World War are found in New Zealand the world

TWO PAINTINGS from a superb 19th-century art collection stolen from a family of Italian Jews in the Second World War are to be auctioned today in Prato, near Florence. The paintings and 30 other works - from the Italian Macchiaioli school - were given up as lost for more than half a century.

Italy's cultural heritage authorities tried several times to trace the missing works but never dreamt of looking as far as New Zealand, where the paintings were prize exhibits in a city art gallery.

Their reappearance triggered a protracted legal battle between two Tuscan businessmen, sons and heirs of the collection owner, and the citizens of Dunedin, one of the southernmost cities in New Zealand.

The works, Woman Rocking a Baby by Odoardo Borrani and The Baker's Shop at Settignano by Telemaco Signorini, belonged to Cino Vitta, a law professor and head of the Jewish Community in Florence. After Mussolini issued the Race Laws deporting Jews to concentration camps Mr Vitta bricked up his cherished collection in a farm cottage in Chianti, sent his son abroad and fled with his wife to a mental asylum in Siena, where they hid till the end of the war.

In 1946, they found the paintings had vanished. Mr Vitta denounced the theft to the Committee for the Recovery of Stolen Italian Art, but the art hunters were busier trying to find the "more important" masterpieces from churches, museums and private homes pillaged by the Nazis. Then, out of the blue, in 1997, Cino Vitta's grandson, Johanan, was telephoned by Italian Customs officers, saying five of the missing Macchiaiolis had turned up in a consignment from New Zealand.

His shock was matched by the embarrassment of the gallery curator accompanying them. The paintings belonged to the Public Art Gallery of Dunedin, the university town at the foot of South Island. The gallery curators had been honoured to lend its five prized pieces for an important retrospective in Florence, after an invitation from Italy's foremost expert on the Macchiaioli group.

The Macchiaioli were artists in the 1850s who broke from academic art to move in a naturalistic direction. Their name came from the "macchia", which means spot or speck of colour, and they were seen as a poor relation of the French Impressionists.

The Dunedin paintings would probably have been unpacked, hung, admired and returned, but for a stroke of fate. An employee in the Customs art clearance department had once worked on compiling the definitive List of Stolen Italian Art Works. When she saw the documentation, a bell rang.

She went back to the list and found the descriptions of Cino Vitta's stolen works perfectly matched the paintings she had in front of her, although there were no photos. Slowly, the mysterious trail of stolen goods began to unravel. While Cino Vitta was still hiding in the Siena mental hospital, Allied troops were inching their way up the peninsula. Among them was Private Arthur Harris Fraser, serving in the 5th New Zealand Field Ambulance.

Pte Fraser, a reserved, cultured man, and an amateur painter, noticed the Macchiaioli paintings at a market in Siena in 1944. He was attracted by their style and size - all are small and easily transportable - bargained, paid and eventually took them home by ship when he was returning for demob.

After he died in 1964, the paintings passed to his sister Dorothy, now in her nineties. In 1994 she sold them to the Dunedin Art Gallery for a symbolic sum. Thus, the gallery argued, they had been acquired legally. A fierce legal battle began while the five paintings duly went on display in the Florence retrospective. The Vitta grandsons, Johanan, a hotelier and amateur painter, and Nathaniel, an antiques dealer, lodged a civil action to reclaim the family treasures.

That was thrown out by a Florence court, then readmitted. Public prosecutors in Rome filed criminal charges against the Dunedin gallery and as soon as the exhibition finished police impounded the Macchiaiolis. The New Zealanders were in a tricky position. They agreed the Vittas had lost the works because of the Nazi invasion, but they felt their reputation for fair play was at stake.

The gallery had acquired them in good faith and the residents of Dunedin had become fond of the pictures. But the gallery executives strongly suspected their ratepayers would not be fond enough to finance a long and costly trip through Italy's judicial labyrinth. It looked as if the good burghers of Dunedin would have to live without the Italian paintings.

But a breakthrough came last April. A Florentine judge, Isabella Mariani, proposed a compromise - the works would be valued and split 50-50, or as close as possible, between the heirs and the gallery. After two years under Italian police guard three Macchiaiolis were finally escorted back to Dunedin in September, to a reception normally reserved for returning rugby champions.

The heirs say their sale of Woman (25cm by 38cm and valued at pounds 80,000) and The Baker (27cm by 18.6cm and pounds 43,000), has been forced, not for financial reasons, but because the brothers are in love with the same painting, the Woman.

Some art experts feel they should have left their dispute to Judge Mariani. She could have allowed them to take turns, year about, rather than sell the heirlooms they fought so hard to regain.


Actress sees off speculation about her appearance in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Serge Pizzorno of Kasabian and Noel Fielding backstage at the Teenage Cancer Trust concerts
musicKasabian and Noel Fielding attack 'boring' musicians
videoWatch Lynda Bellingham's tragic final Loose Women appearance
Arts and Entertainment
The last great picture - Winner 'Black and White' and overall 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage

Arts and Entertainment
High notes, flat performance: Jake Bugg

Review: Despite an uphill climb to see Jake Bugg in action, his performance is notably flat

The Putin automaton will go on sale next month in Germany
videoMusical Putin toy showing him annexing Crimea could sell for millions

Powerful images of strays taken moments before being put down

Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 pose for Children in Need 2001
Arts and Entertainment
'Right Here' singer Jess Glynne is nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards 2014
musicExclusive: Jess Glynne hits out at 'ridiculous' criticism of white artists nominated for Mobo Awards
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand has written a book of political analysis called Revolution

Review: Witty banalities aside, the comedian has an authentic voice

Arts and Entertainment
Separated at birth? Frank Sivero (left) claims The Simpsons based Mafia character Louie on his Goodfellas character
arts + entsFrank Sivero sues Simpsons studio over allegedly basing mobster character on Frank Carbone
Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward (right) with former 'Washington Post' executive editor Ben Bradlee

The Washington Post editor helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bring down President Nixon

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Deputy Head of Science

£36000 - £60000 per annum: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client are a we...

IT Teacher

£22000 - £32000 per annum + TLR: Randstad Education Southampton: Our client is...

Database Administrator

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: The role could involve w...

Science Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Qualified secondary s...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London