Now, after a lengthy search to find the family from whom the painting was taken, the museum is preparing to return the work to its rightful owners.
"Les Amoureux Jeunes (The Young Lovers)" by Francois Boucher (1707-70), will be returned to Mrs. Claude Delibes and Suzanne Geiss Robbins, living heirs of French art dealer Andre Jean Seligmann.
"It all started with a researcher named Nancy Yeide, employed by the National Gallery of Art," said David Carroll, director of collections at the museum.
While working on a book about the history of the Goering collection, Yeide did an Internet search on Boucher and "came up with our painting and recognized that it was one that was never returned to the claimants."
Yeide called the museum and informed them of her finding, whereupon museum officials began a diligent investigation of the painting. After concluding that Yeide was correct, "we asked her to help us take the next step," Carroll said. It was at this point that The Art Loss Register (an organization set up to help claimants recover stolen art) was contacted.
"The painting had been donated to us," said Dana Robinson, the museum's marketing and public relations coordinator. "We try to follow the trail back when we're given a gift, but this one wasn't apparent. It was a little harder to figure out."
With the German occupation of France in 1940, Seligmann fled with his family to the United States. Property stolen from Seligmann's gallery went to Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering's collections, the Boucher winding up with Goering.
After the war, Robinson said, the Boucher found its way to a New York gallery, where it was purchased in 1972 by an individual who donated the piece to the Utah museum in 1993. "Actually, both of Seligmann's heirs are coming here to pick up the art. We're expecting them probably within the next week or two."
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazis pillaged tens of thousands of pieces of artwork from museums, galleries and private collectors in occupied countries.
The Nazis took copious notes on their booty, some documenting their loot on index cards that included the artist's name, size of the work and even the names and addresses of the original owners.
Over the years, family organizations and even countries have fought to have the stolen artwork returned. Today, nervous museum curators still search Nazi records, auction catalogs and bills of sale in an ongoing attempt to reconstruct the paths that artwork took before landing in their collections.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company