STAFF WRITER ,
oil painting of Christ was “dark and kind of depressing,” but the gold
frame around it was beautiful, so when Sister Mary Rosaire received it as
a gift from her school’s principal in 1972, the art teacher promptly
pasted a magazine print of the Blessed Mother over it and hung it in her
was there for more than 26 years. Then, last year, federal agents knocked
on the door of the ex-nun’s Rockville Centre home and told her the
picture, stolen during World War II, had been painted in 1503 and was
worth $5 million.
the painting by Venetian early Renaissance artist Jacopo de’Barbari was
returned to German museum officials after a 55 year odyssey from a Rudolstdt,
Germany, castle to an Astoria Catholic
school to a Long Island home to the hands of a sharp-eyed art restorer.
in stolen art won’t find safe haven in America,” U.S. Customs
Commissioner Raymond Kelly said yesterday. “Returning these treasures is
helpful in our relations with other countries."
indeed a great moment,” said Bernhard Von Der Planitz, consul general of
the German Consulate in New York.
“So much for
my art expertise,” laughed the former Sister Rosaire, now known as Rose
Mary Phol, as she met with the German officials to return the frame, which
she carried in a shopping bag.
painting was to be flown hack to the Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar museum in
Weimar today, in a special wooden briefcase-box carried by museum
vice-director Thomas Foehl and surrounded by armed guards.
is like Christmas was to me as a young boy,” Foehl said.
said the 81/2-by-11
-inch oil-on-wood painting was stolen in 1945 from the Schloss
Schwartzburg, a castle in Germany, apparently by one of the American
the 15th Infantry Division, which had control of the castle.
wound up in the possession of Msgr. Thomas Campbell, who was principal of
Mater Christi High School, now named St. John’s Preparatory School, in
now 85. told Customs investigators he didn’t remember how he got the
painting, but he guessed that a parishioner may have given it to
him, Kelly said.
1972, Campbell gave it to Phol, who left the Sisters of Mercy order
didn’t value it, and I thought it was very dark, kind of depressing, and
I didn’t recognize the artist,” said Phoi, 78. “That’s the sad
part, I was the art teacher.”
Phol wanted the
frame touched up, she said, so in June, 1998, she took it to Frank Vaccaro,
a restorer who runs the Master of Furniture store in Rockville Centre.
apparently realized the paintirg under the magazine picture was valuable,
and kept it without telling Phol, Kelly said. He returned the restored
frame to her with new backing. Then he contacted the Weimar museum and
demanded a $100,000 “finder’s fee,” Kelly said.
museum contacted U.S. Customs, ‘
which launched an investigation. Special Agent Bonnie Goldblatt said
Vaccaro at first denied possessing the painting, but then. “he climbed
on to a filing cabinet and pushed up a tile on the ceiling in his shop and
took down the painting.”
was charged with trying to sell stolen property, but prosecution was deferred,
39, said yesterday, “They dropped the charges . . . I’m
very very happy it’s going back.”
declined to comment further.
of glue that Phol used to secure the magazine print were visible on the
black background of the haunting portrait, displayed on an easel in the U.S. Customs House.
Executive Vice President C. Hugh Hildesley called the painting a
“missing link between two cultures,” because de’Barbari was a master
in Italy and Germany.
also announced a new Art Recovery Team, which will concentrate full-time
on recovering more stolen treasures belonging to foreign countries.