Renaissance woman returned to gallery
The Guardian, 1 June 2006Luke Harding
It is a tiny portrait of one of the most powerful women of the Renaissance. And for more than 50 years the veteran BBC correspondent Charles Wheeler kept the picture of Eleonora of Toledo propped up on his bookshelf.
But yesterday Wheeler returned the painting to Berlin's Gemäldegalerie after discovering that it was a priceless original looted from the museum during the second world war - not a copy as he had thought.
Wheeler, 83, acquired the 16th-century portrait by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori from a German farmer-contributor who dropped in to the BBC's West Berlin office.
"It was 1952. At the time people could move freely between East and West," he said yesterday. "We were doing a programme called Letters Without Signature, where people living in the eastern zone could write a letter. The farmer reached into his pocket, took out a brown envelope and said it was a wedding present for me. He didn't want to take it back to East Berlin because he had already been searched twice on the way over by the communist police."
The farmer claimed he had got it from a Russian soldier in exchange for two sacks of potatoes to make vodka. Over the next 50-plus years Wheeler, one of the BBC's most distinguished foreign correspondents, took the miniature with him. It went on assignment with him from Berlin - where he was posted from 1950 to 1953, returning in the 60s - to Delhi, Washington and Brussels.
It eventually ended up at his West Sussex cottage near Horsham. Wheeler never bothered to get the painting framed. Instead he rested it next to a photo of his brother John, an RAF pilot killed during the war.
"I was burgled four times over the years," he said. "People were always taking my TV and radio. But they ignored the painting."
It was only last year while making a BBC radio series on missing art that Wheeler realised the painting could have been stolen. After contacting the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe the work was swiftly identified as a minor masterpiece - and returned yesterday to Berlin's picture gallery, where it was last seen in 1939.
Yesterday Anne Webber, co-chair of the commission, hailed the work as one of the "earliest diplomatic portraits of a woman". "It's a charming painting," she said. The miniature on poplar wood depicts Eleonora of Toledo, whose husband Cosimo de Medici was one of Renaissance Italy's most powerful men.