A stunning decorative shield, made in the sixteenth century, is returning to the Czech Republic after being looted by the Nazis nearly eighty years ago.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Czech Republic’s National Heritage Institute have concluded an agreement whereby the Italian pageant shield with decoration attributed to Girolamo di Tommaso da Treviso (1497-1544) will be returned to the Czech Republic from Philadelphia, where it has been on display in the Museum’s Galleries of Arms and Armor since 1976.
The shield was made about 1535 and depicts on its exterior shows the storming of New Carthage (209 BCE) in present-day Spain—an important episode of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BCE) and a great victory of the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio (237–183 BCE). Originally intended purely for ceremonial purposes, the decoration suggests a historical parallel between Scipio’s military achievements, many of which occurred in Africa, and the victories of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (ruled 1519 to 1556), who was returning in 1535 from a successful military campaign against Muslim pirates in northern Africa. The shield was probably commissioned for one of the ceremonies that were being held throughout Italy to welcome Emperor Charles V in triumph.
The shield eventually went into the collection of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose assassination in 1914 touched off World War I. The Archduke owned one of Europe’s preeminent collections of arms and armor, which was displayed at his country residence, Konopiště Castle, near Prague. When the former Habsburg imperial properties were redistributed after the war, the castle and its collections became the property of the government of the newly formed Czechoslovakia in 1919.
In 1939 the Nazi government annexed the part of Czechoslovakia where Konopiště was located, and in 1943 the German army confiscated the Konopiště Castle armor collection, including the shield, and took it to Prague to be housed in a new military museum. However, Adolf Hitler’s arms and armor curator, Leopold Ruprecht, soon skimmed off the cream of the collection, inventoried it, and dispatched it to Vienna, intending the best for Hitler’s planned mega-museum in Linz, Austria.
At the end of the war, large groups of Konopiště objects were recovered by the Allies and returned to Czech authorities in 1946, but among 15 objects that remained missing was a shield whose description was similar to the pageant shield. Based on previously available documentation, the museum had been unable conclusively to identify the shield in its collection as one of the unrecovered objects from the Konopiště Castle armor collection.
Since 2016, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been collaborating with historians in the Czech Republic to evaluate the history and provenance of the Italian pageant shield. Recent research identified pre-WWII inventories which, in tandem with a photograph, dated to around 1913, showing the museum’s shield as displayed at Konopiště Castle provided by the museum, persuasively identify the shield as the one illegally taken from Konopiště Castle by the Nazis and never returned.
“Together with our friends from the National Heritage Institute, the Ministry of Culture and the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic, we are pleased to announce the resolution of this investigation,” says Timothy Rub, the Director and CEO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “A work that had been lost during the turmoil of World War II is being happily restituted, and out of this has come an exceptional scholarly partnership.”
Hynek Kmoníček, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States, added “The Philadelphia Museum of Art deserves enormous credit for being so forthcoming in returning this immensely valuable piece of art to the Czech Republic. This case is a prime example of best practices in restitution. Our fruitful collaboration can serve as a model of international partnership in restoring looted art.
“After many decades, a remarkable piece of Italian Renaissance art, historically belonging to the d´Este Collection of the Konopiste Castle, returns to the Czech Republic. We are delighted that after important negotiations we will soon be able to reinstate it as part of the collections of the National Heritage Institute and make it available once again to the public in Europe.
“The Renaissance shield, in its misfortune of being removed from its historic collection, also experienced great fortune. It has in recent years been protected, curated and preserved by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution with an exceptional team of art connoisseurs, specialists, restorers, and conservators. These professionals have made exemplary efforts to care for, restore, and preserve this outstanding object, and as a result of their excellent work we will soon be able to present it to the public.”
As part of the agreement, the Czech Republic has graciously agreed to consider any future loan request for the shield from the museum.