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474-year-old painting stolen by Nazis given to owner's heirs

Philip Sears/Reuters

Corinne Hershkovitch, legal representative of the family of Federico Gentili di Giuseppe, and officials stand next to the painting "Christ Carrying the Cross" by Italian artist Girolamo de' Romani after signing papers to return it to its rightful owners in Tallahassee, Florida.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- A painting – nearly five centuries old and worth millions - that was taken by the Nazis in World War II has been returned to the heirs of its original Jewish owner by U.S. officials.

"Christ Carrying the Cross Dragged By A Rascal" by Italian artist Girolamo de' Romani was stolen during the occupation of France from Frederico Gentili di Giuseppe, an Italian Jew who had lived in Paris, Reuters reported.

He died of natural causes in 1940, a month before the Nazis invaded, and his children and grandchildren had already fled the country.

The painting was one of 70 items taken from his collection, Reuters said. It depicts Christ crowned in thorns, carrying a cross and dressed in a copper-colored silk robe, and dates back to circa 1538.

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The collection was sold by the French Vichy government – allowed by the Nazis to run parts of France - in 1941 and Gentili's grandchildren filed suit in 1997 to get it back, according to the news service.

The painting had found its way to the Pinacoteca di Brera museum in Milan, Italy, which then loaned it to the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Florida.

'Right a wrong'
Based on a tip from an employee of Christie's auction house in June 2011, Interpol investigators last summer alerted U.S. officials that the painting may have been stolen, Reuters reported.

Last September, U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh ordered the Brogan museum to hold the painting instead of returning it to Italy, saying the federal government believed it rightfully belonged to the man's family, according to The Associated Press. It had been under the protection of the U.S. government since November.

"Seventy years is a very long time … But it shows that it is never too late to right a wrong,” U.S. Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent Susan McCormick told reporters Wednesday.

The piece is one of hundreds of thousands of works of art stolen from Jewish families throughout Europe by the Nazis. It is among nearly 2,500 works of art and antiquities that Homeland Security Investigations officials have repatriated to 23 countries since 2007.

Gentili's grandson, Lionel Salem, told reporters by telephone on Wednesday that the six heirs plan to sell the work, which he said was due to be auctioned at Christie's in New York on June 6. The painting has been insured for $2.5 million.

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"For a cake, it is relatively easy cutting it into six, not totally easy but quite easily," Salem said of the family's decision to sell. "But for a painting, you see, it is more difficult."

Marsh hailed the outcome of the investigations.

"This result happened only because people were courageous and willing to step up and do what they knew was right and good," she said, according to The Associated Press.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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