After calling for witnesses to reveal the owner, the authorities decided to confiscate the painting from an elderly Munich resident.
Two days after they sought help from the public to locate the 17th-century painting by Flemish artist Frans Francken the Younger, a 67-year-old relative of the painting's owner called investigators on Friday to say it was hanging in her relative's Westend district apartment. She told police she had seen the police appeal in a regional newspaper.
“We're not sure if we'll be able to question the owner,” Munich police spokesperson Ludwig Waldinger told The Local. “She's very ill in the hospital and she's 93-years-old.”
Police secured the painting on Friday, and it will remain in Munich police custody while investigators try to piece together what happened to the 1606 painting after it was likely looted from Adolf Hitler's Munich reception building, the Führerbau, as American troops approached near the end of World War II.
It was in this building that the Nazis had amassed some 723 paintings gathered by the Sonderauftrag Linz, an organisation formed by Hitler to collect art for his planned Führermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. Some 650 of these paintings, gathered by Dresden State Art Collections, went missing when the Nazis fled.
The last physical evidence of the painting's origin shows that it belonged to a French family and was purchased on October 14, 1943 by a Dresden art dealer, Waldinger said. It is now worth an estimated €100,000.
Initial reports said that the painting's owner may have been Jewish, but Waldinger said police are now unsure of their background.
“There are still so many questions,” he told The Local.
Initial police investigation has revealed that the 93-year-old owner's parents gave her the painting, entitled “The Sermon on the Mount (Paul in Lystra).” A male relative of the owner submitted the painting to broadcaster Bayrischer Rundfunk's show Kunst und Krempel, or “Art and Junk,” for appraisal on November 15, 2008. He died in June 2009, Waldinger said.
An art expert saw the 33 by 79.5-centimetre painting on the “Antiques Roadshow” style programme and suspected it might have been stolen, but didn't call police until six months later to explain his research.
The show asserted its journalistic right to protect its sources, forcing Munich police to go public with their search.
If they find the painting belonged to Adolf Hitler himself, the Bavarian Finance Ministry will take the next steps to find the painting a home, Waldinger said. If its rightful owner was another individual, the federal government will take on the project of restitution, he added.