David Tracy bought a house in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1987 and was delighted to discover that the previous owners had left behind a keepsake – a painting from a Russian artist named Mikhail N. Panin called Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichnina.
Four years later, newlyweds David and Gabby Tracy moved and spent $37,000 on an addition in which to display the 64-foot picture. It was the centerpiece of the Tracy’s collection for years until, after their retirement in 2017, when they chose to sell their collection and move to Maine.
The painting was appraised at $5,000. Now in their eighties, the couple were hoping that the money they acquired from the sale of Panin’s masterpiece would bolster their savings. This was not to be, however.
A researcher working out of an auction house in Alexandria, Virginia, discovered that the painting had a nefarious origin. It had been stolen during the Second World War from a museum in Ukraine in 1941. The museum confirmed this the day before the auction, on November 17, 2017.
The auction house contacted the federal government. Now the government and the Tracys are hoping for the safe return of the artwork to Ukraine.
Gabby, a survivor of the Holocaust herself, was shocked when she heard of the painting’s history. She had been born in Slovakia and forced to live in a Jewish ghetto in Budapest at nine years old. Her father, Samuel Weiss, died in the concentration camp system while she survived the war.
It was a peculiar quirk of fate that led to her discovering that a painting she had admired for so many years had once been stolen from the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum in Ukraine. Federal prosecutors blame the Nazis, but the painting actually ended up in the care of a Swiss border guard.
The guard emigrated to the United States in 1947 and moved to Ridgefield. In 1962, he sold the house and left the painting. This happened again in 1987 when David Tracy bought the house. The Swiss guard passed away in the 1980s and left no heirs.
Gabby was curious about the guard and whether or not he had received this painting as a reward for helping some Nazis escape to Switzerland at the end of the war. She admits to being baffled as to how he somehow got it across the ocean to America, given the size of the painting.
The Tracys let the government take the painting. The official forfeiture notice was called United States v. One Painting Entitled Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichnina, and it was legal protection to ensure that no one else could claim ownership before the FBI could return the painting to its rightful owners.
The Ukrainian embassy stated that it was pleased to see the return of the painting. It also publicly thanked the Tracys.
Nancy McNamara, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington Field Office, stated that the artwork’s importance was due to its place in the world of art and culture and that its value was more than merely monetary.
Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, the owner of the auction house, said that the painting’s history almost went undiscovered. It was down to a researcher, who discovered a reference to the work in an old Russian publication. The painting was considered to have been destroyed according to the publication, as it was not registered as stolen.
The researcher investigated further and discovered the museum in Ukraine, which provided pictures of the painting hanging at the Dnepropetrovsk in 1929. It was also listed on an internal inventory of artwork stolen by the Nazis.
The Tracys are happy to see the painting back where it belongs.