Long Journey Home
By Patrice O’Shaughnessy
STAFF WRITER , NEWSDAY
December 15, 2000
The 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 bedroom.
It 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.
Yesterday, 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.
“Traffickers 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.”
“This is 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.
The painting was to be flown back 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.
“This is like Christmas was to me as a young boy,” Foehl said.
Kelly said the 8-1/2-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 troops from the 15th Infantry Division, which had control of the castle.
It 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 Astoria.
Campbell, 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.
In 1972, Campbell gave it to Phol, who left the Sisters of Mercy order that year.
“He didn’t value it, and I thought it was very dark, kind of depressing, and I didn’t recognize the artist,” said Phol, 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.
Vaccaro apparently realized the painting 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.
The 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.”
Vaccaro was charged with trying to sell stolen property, but the prosecution was deferred, Kelly said.
Vaccaro, 39, said yesterday, “They dropped the charges . . . I’m very very happy it’s going back.”
He declined to comment further.
Smudges of glue that Phol used to secure the magazine print were visible on the black back¬ground of the haunting portrait, displayed on an easel in the U.S. Customs House.
Sotheby’s 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.
Kelly also announced a new Art Recovery Team, which will concentrate full-time on recovering more stolen treasures belonging to foreign countries.