Los Angeles museum gains painting, could lose seal

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has welcomed the donation of a Baroque-era painting that was stolen in Italy by Nazis during World War II, but it could be losing a royal seal that may have been taken from a shrine in Seoul as the Korean War wound down.

The painting looted by the Nazis in 1944 was installed Monday at the museum's galleries for European art after it was returned to its owner last week and promptly donated.

The life-size figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria_ painted in Italy around 1615 by Bernardo Strozzi _ is a promised gift to the museum by Philippa Calnan, the original owner's sole direct descendant, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Calnan is a retired public affairs director at the museum and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Meanwhile, the fate of a Korean seal from the Joseon Dynasty remained unclear.

In a September statement, the museum said there was "credible evidence" that its Royal Seal with Knob in the Form of a Turtle was "removed unlawfully from the National Shrine in Korea."

"While LACMA has not received a formal request from the Korean national government, we have reached out to them to discuss the results of our research and a mutually satisfactory resolution, including the return of the Royal Seal to Korea," the statement said.

An official at the state-run cultural heritage administration told The Associated Press that South Korea in May asked the United States to investigate how the seal ended up at the Los Angeles museum known for showcasing art from ancient times to the modern era.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department rules, said U.S. homeland security officials have confiscated the seal, as they investigate.

Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said she could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Miranda Carroll, a spokeswoman for the museum, said Tuesday that officials there would not discuss details.

The 16th century royal seal has been in the museum collection since 2000.

The Korean government has held for years that signets from the Joseon Dynasty that went missing after the war were stolen by American soldiers.

This month, ICE agents seized nine other Korean seals in Escondido in San Diego County. Authorities told the Times the seals were turned over by the family of a deceased Marine lieutenant who had served in the Korean War. Five of the seals were determined to be part of the missing group from Korea's Joseon Dynasty.

However, officials don't believe that case is related to the museum seal.

The museum gain the painting by Strozzi, known for its iridescent color and theatrical side-lighting, after it turned up on the art market five years ago. On Friday, an Italian court ordered it returned to Calnan.

The Times said it is highly unusual for a major painting plundered from a private party during wartime to be given to a museum upon restitution, rather than sold to settle claims from multiple heirs.

The painting, valued at up to $3 million, was one of nearly a dozen works stolen from the collection of Charles A. Loeser, an American expatriate and heir to a Brooklyn department store fortune.

The Strozzi disappeared in April 1944, after the Nazi prefect set up headquarters in the Loeser family's villa. It resurfaced around 2008 in Vienna, where it was sold by an unidentified Austrian collector.

Sotheby's was approached about accepting the painting for auction, but research into its ownership revealed its history as a stolen piece. The auction house notified Italian police and contacted Calnan, who is Loeser's granddaughter.

The painting had by then been jointly bought by two Old Master art dealers. Calnan was blocked by the Italian courts from obtaining an export license for what was deemed a national treasure. She appealed the ruling and won.

The painting was shipped from Milan last week.

A popular saint since the Middle Ages, Catherine of Alexandria was revered for her chastity, scholarly acumen and unshakable faith. After converting hundreds to Christianity, she was condemned to death by 4th century Roman Emperor Maxentius.


Hyung-jin Kim reported from Seoul.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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