Northern Va. gallery, asked to sell couple’s artworks, discovers painting stolen by Nazis

The “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina” is a 1911 painting by the Ukrainian artist Mikhail Panin. It was stolen by the Nazis in World War II. (Courtesy the Potomack Company)

A massive portrait of the Russian czar known as Ivan the Terrible was long thought to be destroyed after Nazis stole the painting from Ukraine during World War II. Instead, it was actually hanging on the wall of a Connecticut home for decades.

Now, an Alexandria, Virginia, auction gallery is helping to return the painting to Ukraine.

The Potomack Company auction house began researching the painting in 2017 after a downsizing Connecticut couple, David and Gabby Tracy, asked the company to sell their artwork. The couple came into possession of the painting in 1987, when the 7 ½ foot by 8 ½ foot canvas came with the house they bought in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

Anne Craner, a fine arts specialist with the Potomack Company, began sleuthing to discover the origins of the painting, eventually connecting with a museum in Ukraine.

Eventually, Craner learned the painting was a 1911 work called “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina,” completed by the Ukrainian artist Mikhail Panin.

The museum in Ukraine supplied photos of the painting taken in 1929, and also provided documentation showing the portrait was included on an inventory of artworks stolen from a city museum there and listed as “taken to Germany by the Hitlerites.”

The Potomack Company contacted the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office, which worked with the State Department and Ukrainian diplomats to work on returning the painting to Ukraine.

The official handover comes Monday when the company will host a repatriation ceremony. Set to attend are the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly, U.S. Attorney for the District Jessie Liu, officials from the FBI and the State Department as well as the Tracys.

The auction house said that Gabby Tracy is a Holocaust survivor and that the couple appreciated the need to return the painting to its rightful home.

This isn’t the first time the Potomack auction gallery has returned stolen works of arts and historical artifacts.

Previously, the gallery has helped return a letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette to the Massachusetts Archives; a long-lost Renoir to the Baltimore Museum of Art; and a pair of historic marble urns to the Arlington National Cemetery amphitheater.

“Our team is passionate about discovering the stories behind the objects we touch every day,” said Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein, owner and CEO of The Potomack Company, in a news release. “It’s important that these pieces be returned, and it’s gratifying to see research reunite art with its original caretakers.”

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