2020 - 08 - 22

“Christ resurrected” returned to Lithuania

In July 2020, a unique wooden sculpture “Christ resurrected“ of the late Gothic period (16th century) from the collection of the priest Ričardas Mikutavičius, which in 2001 was illicitly removed from Lithuania and later returned to Lithuania, was presented in the Ministry of Culture. The sculpture has been recognised a movable cultural property, and in 2009 it was listed on the Register of Cultural Property. The specialists of the Department of Cultural Heritage (the DCH) have been trying for nearly 20 years to trace where the sculpture was taken to from Lithuania, they have been observing art auctions, and later, when it became evident that it had been acquired by an Austrian national, they cooperated for a long time with the Austrian law enforcement  authorities in an attempt to recover the work of art.
Was brought by the Bernardines
This sculpture was brought by the Bernardine monks to the church in Kretinga, that was built in 1610-1617, from Western Europe. In Kretinga, the sculpture was retained by 1928, later it was donated to General Henrikas Nagevičius who was interested in art. The sculpture was delivered to Babtynas manor near Babtai that belonged to the General. After the General retreated to the West, the sculpture was considered to be missing. In the early 1980s, one parishioner brought the sculpture to the priest R. Mikutavičius who at the time served as the parson in Babtai parish. The sculpture was repainted with oil paint. It was severely damaged because the sculpture was previously kept in inappropriate conditions, its wooden legs were rotten.
In 1994-1996, the sculpture “Christ resurrected” was restored at the public expense at Pranas Gudynas Centre for Restoration at the Lithuanian Art Museum (the restoration works were carried out by Alfonsas Šaulys). In 1996, the sculpture was exhibited in Riga, at the Museum of Foreign Art, where the 4th Exhibition of Baltic Restorers' Works took place. In Lithuania, only several Gothic sculptures have survived to the present day. This sculpture stands out for its special artistic value. As Dr. Marija Matušakaitė, the art historian and theoretician, wrote, the small sculpture, which is about 80 cm high, stands out for its expression: dynamic movement of the reclined figure, the naked torso muscles, small delicate facial features, unique hair and drapery modelling testify to the original touch of the talented author.
After the death of R. Mikutavičius in 1998, the works of art from his collection went to his relatives. “The last time I saw the sculpture “Christ resurrected” in March 1999 on television, when the funeral of priest R. Mikutavičius was broadcast. The sculpture was standing by the coffin. Then we all learned that the sculpture was not missing, that it had not been removed from Lithuania”, - told Remigijus Grėbliūnas, the specialist of the DCH on the issues of cultural goods that are being removed from Lithuania.
Illicitly removed from Lithuania
“However, rumours quickly spread among collectors that in 2001, the sculpture was sold for LTL 10,000 by Artūras Kolaitis, the nephew of R. Mikutavičius, to the former presidential candidate Juozas Edvardas Petraitis. Since then, we knew nothing about the sculpture”, - told R. Grėbliūnas. – “In 2008, I was looking through catalogues of various auctions. My attention was caught by the 2001 catalogue of Bruun Rasmussen Art Auction in Copenhagen, Denmark, in which the sculpture "Christ resurrected" was offered for purchase for an amount of DKK 150,000. As it turned out later, the sculpture was put up for auction by a Swedish resident who has Swedish citizenship. The specialists of the DCH, together with the Customs Criminal Service and the Criminal Police Bureau found out that the sculpture had been purchased at the auction by an Austrian citizen”.
The specialists of a movable cultural heritage rated the sculpture as the chrestomathic art object of Lithuanian sacral heritage of particular historical, artistic and cultural significance. This sculpture of exceptional artistic level is one of the few works of art of the late Gothic period in Lithuania, representing Lithuanian sculpture, that has survived to the present day.
People might wonder why the sculpture was listed on the Register of Cultural Property only in 2009. As R. Grėbliūnas explained, movable cultural property, that does not belong to the state and is owned by private persons, can be listed on the register only with the consent of the owner, except in cases when a permit for its temporary removal from Lithuania is issued or when it is in danger of being destroyed. This is stated in the Law on the Protection of Movable Cultural Property. The threat of destruction of the sculpture arose when the DCH received information that the sculpture had been removed from Lithuania without a permit for its removal.
“I can claim to know who is the author of this sculpture”, - said R. Grėbliūnas. - When I saw the catalogue of works by Gdansk masters of the 13th-16th centuries, which were exhibited in 2007 at the National Museum in Gdansk, I compared the works of master Pawel, who worked as a creator in around 1525-1535, with the sculpture “Christ resurrected“ and it was obvious that the style was the same“.
A long way home
Since 2008, there has been a dispute over the return of “Christ resurrected“ to Lithuania. The identification expertise of the sculpture, which was carried out on 17 September 2010 in one of the antique shops in Vienna, the capital of Austria, confirmed that the sculpture is the sought-after cultural property that had been illicitly removed from Lithuania.
Through the mediation of the Lithuanian Embassy in Austria, in 2009, judicial proceedings had been initiated - the case of Lithuania for the return of the sculpture “Christ resurrected“, that was illicitly removed from Lithuania, to Lithuania. The Civil Court of the Federal State of Vienna declared the claim of Lithuania to return the cultural property, that was illicitly removed from Lithuania, to be lawful. Only compensation for the defendant became the subject of the dispute.
While the lawsuit was pending, the Austrian national, who acquired the sculpture, died. His heirs further attended the court hearings. In 2020, Lithuania recovered the sculpture after paying compensation of 40 thousand euros (this makes up the price of the sculpture purchase at auction and of its restoration).
The Ministry of Culture entrusted the Lithuanian Museum of National with the task of storage of the sculpture “Christ resurrected”. Such decision was taken given the fact that after the restoration program for the period 1994-1996 was drawn up in 1992, this work of fine art was restored at then Pranas Gudynas Centre for Restoration at the Lithuanian Art Museum.
This is the first time when, in application of Council Directive 93/7/EEC of 15 March 1993 on the return of cultural objects illicitly removed from the territory of a Member State, the cultural heritage property, that was illicitly removed from the country, is returned to Lithuania.
This return of the lost Lithuanian cultural property symbolically coincides with the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property which celebrates its 50th anniversary (Lithuania joined it in 1998).
By this Convention, the States Parties to the Convention recognise that the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of impoverishment of cultural heritage, and that international cooperation creates one of the most effective tools in protecting the cultural goods of each country from all the resulting dangers; they also undertake to oppose such activities by all available means, to eliminate their causes and to prevent similar phenomena.
Remigijus Grėbliūnas, the Chief Specialist of the DCH, is pleased by the fact that the sculpture “Christ resurrected” at last returned to Lithuania. Photo of the DCH.
2020 - 08 - 22

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