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Rubens Oil Sketch Returns to Friedenstein Castle After 80 Years

A linchpin of the art collection is coming home to Friedenstein Castle in Gotha, Germany: the oil sketch Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (1621) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Rubens painted this study himself in 1621. It is one of the Gotha series consisting of five sketches in oil painted by the artist in the years around 1620 as he prepared to decorate the Jesuit Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerp. The sketches are all the more precious because the ceilings with the painted canvases were destroyed in a fire. This series was regarded as one of the outstanding jewels of art history in the collection at Gotha but it was scattered to the winds during the hostilities of the Second World War. Only two of the sketches were on the Friedenstein until recently.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Saint Gregory of Nazianzius, 1621, © Christie’s Images 2024

The return

The return is the result of an intense process framed by constructive cooperation between two arts institutions serving the public (Buffalo AKG Art Museum in the United States and Friedenstein Stiftung Gotha), by the mediation and responsible spirit of the auction house Christie’s and by the commitment and generous support of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung (EvSK).

The process began in 2020 when the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (formerly the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) submitted the sketch to Christie’s and asked them to organize the sale of the oil sketch Saint Gregory of Nazianzus by Rubens in keeping with the guidelines issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and the International Council of Museums (ICOM).

Christie’s conducted the negotiations on behalf of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum with Friedenstein Stiftung Gotha, which had listed the work on the Lost Art database in 2001. The foundation in Gotha was keen from the outset to achieve an amicable agreement, believing that, while the museum had acquired the work in good faith in 1952, the true details of ownership had not been public knowledge at the time.

“As one of the world’s first museums of modern and contemporary art, the mandate of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum since its founding in 1862 has been to collect and exhibit the art of the present moment,” says Janne Sirén, Peggy Pierce Elfvin Director of the Buffalo AKG. “The early seventeenth-century oil study by Rubens falls well outside the mission of this museum, and as a result the Board of Directors elected to transfer the work to a more suitable institution.”

History of the oil sketches

The modelli of Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil returned to Friedenstein in 1958. After the Red Army arrived, they had been taken to the Soviet Union but were later returned. A different fate met the current homecomer and the two sketches by Rubens still missing from the collection. They were removed from Friedenstein in 1945 and, with the argument that they should be stored beyond the reach of the Red Army, transferred to Coburg at the end of the war. By this time the works had long since ceased to be the property of the dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whose family sold them to buyers in the United States soon after the war. Instead they belonged to an independent foundation set up with a mission to serve public purposes in art and science under the name Herzog von Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha’sche Stiftung für Kunst und Wissenschaft. In 1952 the sketch of St Gregory was sold by the gallery E. & A. Silberman in New York to the Albright Art Gallery, the predecessor of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery from which the Buffalo AKG Art Museum later emerged. The absence of the other three modelli by Rubens is currently marked by black-and-white reproductions hanging alongside the original sketches of Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil in the Dutch and Flemish Room at the Ducal Museum in Gotha. One of these vacant spots will be filled by the colorful original when Saint Gregory of Nazanzius returns home.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Saint Athanasius, 1620, © Friedenstein Stiftung Gotha, Photo: Thomas Fuchs

The other Rubens sketches still missing from Gotha are listed as wartime losses on the Lost Art database maintained by the German Lost Art Foundation. The Prophet Elijah is assumed to have been in the possession of Curtius O. Baer from 1952. It was last verifiably held in the collection of George M. Baer (1936-2009) of Atlanta, Georgia. By 1997 at the latest, the oil sketch was recorded as on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. It is unclear, however, whether it is still there. Saint Augustine is now in the Bührle Collection in Switzerland and on display at Kunsthaus Zürich. Friedenstein Stiftung Gotha is engaged in constructive talks with the Bührle Collection aimed at bringing the work to Gotha as a temporary loan so that the entire series of sketches by Rubens can be honored in an exhibition.