Painting, stolen by Nazis in World War II, repatriated back to Ukraine
RIDGEFIELD — Ivan the Terrible — as painted by Mikhail Panin in 1911, stolen by Nazis in World War II, and hung in two different Ridgefield homes for more than 50 years — is being repatriated to Ukraine, where the painting was displayed in a museum for decades before the war.
“Hopefully we’ll go to the Ukraine and see it hanging in a museum,” said Gabby Tracy, a longtime Ridgefield woman who moved to Maine in late 2017. Her husband, David Tracy, had acquired the 71/2-foot by 81/2-foot canvas when he bought a house on Mamanasco Road in 1987. When they married in 1991, they moved the painting to Gabby Tracy’s house on Limestone Road.
The painting, “Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina” (Oprichina means “repression”), is being returned to Ukraine after a legal proceeding that the Tracys were happy to cooperate with — Gabby Tracy is Holocaust survivor.
A ceremony attended by the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., and representatives of the State Department and the FBI, was Monday at the Potomack Company auction house in Alexandria, Va., to mark the formal transfer and planned repatriation of the painting.
Gabby and David Tracy took part in the ceremony in Alexandria by a Skype connection on the internet. Jennifer Single, one of David Tracy’s daughters, planned to attend the ceremony. Another daughter, Laurie Thomas, lives in Ridgefield.
“The ambassador spoke to us, and everyone was thanking us, the FBI and so forth,” Gabby Tracy said.
The Potomack Company researched and discovered painting’s remarkable history as it prepared to sell David and Gabby Tracy’s art collection, after the couple had moved to Portland, Maine, in late 2017.
According to a legal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. in December 2018 — with the United States government as the plaintiff and the painting named as the defendant — the auction house had received emails asserting ownership of painting by a museum in Ukraine.
“On November 17, 2017, an employee of the auction house received an email from the Dnepropetrovsk State Art Museum,” the complaint states. “The email stated, in part: Attention! Painting ‘Ivan the Terrible’ was in the collection of the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum until 1941 and was stolen during the Second World War. The museum documentation confirms this fact. Please stop selling this painting at auction!!! According the international rules of restitution of stolen works of art, the picture should return to Ukraine.
“On December 29, 2017, the auction house received a further email from the Director of the Dnepropetrovsk State Art Museum stating, in part: The painting of Mikhail Panin (1877-1963) ‘Ivan the Terrible’ dated of 1911 was a diploma work of the artist, was transferred from the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1913 to the collection of Ekaterinoslav City Art Museum (today the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum), was among the 64 exhibits that compiled the first museum exposition in 1914, was exhibited at the permanent exhibition of the museum until 1941 and disappeared during the occupation of the city during the Second World War.
“We have black-white photos and documents of the museum’s funds [sic]. Law enforcement obtained records from the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington, D.C., which provided supporting documentation regarding the authenticity of the Defendant Property. “
‘Fleeing the Kremlin’
A story in Alexandria Living Magazine’s Sept. 6 issue described the history and events leading to the painting’s transfer. “Stolen during World War II and thought to be destroyed, the massive 7½’ x 8 ½;’ canvas depicts the 16th-century Russian czar fleeing the Kremlin on horseback,” Alexandria Living’s Mary Ann Barton wrote.
“In 2017, before retiring to a smaller residence, a couple from Ridgefield, Conn., Mr. and Mrs. David Tracy, reached out to the Potomack Company auction gallery in Alexandria to sell their artwork, which included the ‘Secret Departure of Ivan the Terrible Before the Oprichina.’
“...When the painting arrived at Potomack, fine arts specialist Anne Craner began researching it. She eventually connected with a museum in Ukraine, which sent her photos taken in 1929 of that very painting at what was then the Ekaterinoslav City Art Museum. It was also included in a museum inventory of “artworks taken to Germany by the Hitlerites.”
The Tracys had enjoyed the painting for years, and didn’t realize its history, or value — now estimated at about $5,000.
“David and Gabby Tracy had long cherished the painting but figured it was a copy, not the signed original,” according to a December 2018 story in Hearst Connecticut Media
“Standing nearly eight feet tall, the painting depicts the 16th century Russian czar Ivan the Terrible looking crestfallen as he flees the Kremlin on horseback.
It had been left behind in a Ridgefield home that David Tracy bought in 1987. The previous couple in the home said the painting was already there when they purchased the house from a Swiss man in 1962.”
How did it get here?
A story in Dec. 21, 2018 Washington Post said the painting “...had been looted from the Dnepropetrovsk Art Museum in Ukraine. Federal prosecutors blame German forces, but somehow the painting got into the hands of a Swiss border guard.”
The Post added, “The U.S. attorney’s office in the District says the guard emigrated to the United States in 1946 and at some point moved to Ridgefield. He sold his house in 1962, leaving the painting behind, just as the couple who bought it from him did when they sold it in 1987 to David Tracy and moved to Arizona to retire. The Swiss guard died in 1986 with no heirs, federal prosecutors said.”
Gabby Tracy was born in Slovakia and was about nine years old when she was taken to a Jewish ghetto in Budapest, Hungary. She was liberated at the end of the war, but lost her father, Samuel Weiss, who was among the millions do die the concentration camps.
“It’s ironic this painting was stolen by the Nazis and we were taking care of it for 30 years,” Gabby Tracy said in her Sept. 9 phone interview.
“Indeed, it was the Russians that liberated me in Buadapest with my family — not my whole family, they didn’t all make it.”
The painting’s size may have contributed to the fact that it was simply left as part of the Mamanasco Road house when David Tracy bought it in 1987, and by to the couple that sold it to him when they’d bought the house in 1962 from the Swiss border guard.
David Tracy sold the place and moved to Gabby’s house on Limestone Road when they married in 1991.
They added a room to properly display the large painting, enjoyed the painting for decades, and put it up for sale with other artwork when they downsized and moved to Maine at the end of 2017.
“First it was on Mamanasco Road, and then we moved it over to Limestone Road,” Gabby Tracy said.
“We didn’t have a room big enough to put Ivan the Terrible,” she said.
Gabby Tracy had lived in Ridgefield — in the Limestone Road house — for half a century, served on the school board and was well known as in the real estate business under her previous name, Gabby Kessler.
“I was in that house for 50 years,” she said.
“I miss Ridgefield, I miss my friends,” she said. “I don’t miss taking care of a big house.”