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Police confiscate stolen painting found on antiques TV show

Bavarian police said on Monday they had confiscated a valuable painting likely stolen by the Nazis after it turned up on an antiques appraisal TV show.

Police confiscate stolen painting found on antiques TV show
Photo: DPA

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.

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CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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