The folks at the Pirmasens Museum had long given up hope that a cache of paintings by that city's most famous 19th-century painter, Heinrich Burkel, would ever be found.
About 50 paintings, mostly by Burkel, a talented landscape artist, were removed from the museum in the southern German town of about 60,000 residents in 1942 because of the threat of bombing and placed in an air raid shelter in a nearby school. When museum curators went to recover them after the Allied victory in 1945, they had disappeared.
Then this fall Heike Wittmer, the museum's director and archivist, saw what looked like three of the missing Burkels on a Web site advertising an art auction in Concordville, Pa., outside Philadelphia. Wittmer contacted cultural officers in the German government, who in turn contacted the FBI's new Art Crime Team.
"We informed the auction company of the museum's claim and they halted the possible sale," John C. Eckenrode, special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia division, said Tuesday at a news conference. "It is somewhat miraculous, but it does show the power we have now with the Internet, even in things like this."
Eckenrode said that the paintings, valued at about $125,000, found their way in the 1960s to a New Jersey man who bequeathed them to his daughter about 20 years later. Eckenrode said that she had apparently consigned them to auction not knowing their history. He would not give the names of the woman and her father, but said authorities do not plan to file charges, and that she has given up any claim she had on the paintings.
"We're convinced that the consignee and the auction house have nothing to be charged with. If there was anything, it was with people long dead, and we're just happy the art is going where it belongs," Eckenrode said.
The FBI used the recovery and display of the three Burkel paintings to promote the Art Crime Team, which it started early last year. It was created as a response to what the FBI believes is a growing market for stolen art.
FBI Deputy Assistant Director Deborah Price said, "We sent out a call among our agents and it turned out there were a lot with knowledge and interest. Some said they had worked in galleries before or were sculptors, or were experts in this or that type of art. We really had a lot of interest."
Eventually, the bureau chose eight agents and gave them special training in Philadelphia last winter. So far, said Price, the team has recovered about 100 items worth approximately $40 million and made 10 arrests.
It has also created that specialty of the bureau, a most-wanted list, in this case called the FBI Top Ten Art Crimes. On Tuesday Price officially added two Maxfield Parrish paintings to the list. They were cut from their frames at a gallery in West Hollywood, Calif., in July 2002, and could be worth as much as $4 million. They are about 5 by 6 feet and are of partyers in Florentine costumes cavorting on a patio. Heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney commissioned Parrish to do the pictures and four similar ones between 1912 and 1916.