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Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the handover of the painting “Vaso di Fiori” (“Vase of Flowers”)

19.07.2019 - Speech
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is bringing Jan van Huysum’s painting “Vaso di Fiori”to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence today.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is bringing Jan van Huysum’s painting “Vaso di Fiori”to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence today.© Janine Schmitz/photothek.net

A museum without exhibits is like a vase without flowers – an empty container that’s probably nice to look at from the outside, but which is bereft of its actual purpose.

Now it will certainly be impossible to claim that the Uffizi Gallery would have been empty without the painting “Vaso di Fiori” by the Dutch painter Jan van Huysum. And yet something was missing. There was a gap.

We’re here today to fill this gap. And also to celebrate a return together – not just a flower for the vase, but a whole bouquet of flowers.

At the end of the day, this marks the happy end to an unintentional long journey. The painting was stolen during the German occupation in the Second World War and brought to Germany by a Wehrmacht soldier, where it was in private ownership at a location that we weren’t privy to for a long time.

At the beginning of the 90s, an attempt by the descendants of the soldier to sell the painting via a renowned auction house in London failed.

That was also the moment when the image came into the public eye.

Since then, we have made repeated attempts, together with the Italian authorities and the Uffizi Gallery, to enable the painting to be returned to Florence. After all, this is its rightful place, where it belongs. We were able to convince the descendants of the German soldier of this. And so it was that the painting reached the Foreign Office, making its way back to the Uffizi Gallery from there.

When I consider how everyone here today worked together to support this cause, then I want to say one thing above all else: thank you!

I would like to thank the Italian authorities, first and foremost you, Enzo, and you, Minister Bonisoli, the special unit of the Italian police for stolen works of art and the public prosecutor’s office in Florence.

And last but not least, Mr Schmidt, I would like to thank you sincerely for your patience and your persistent, sometimes spectacular, plea for this work to be returned. We need only think of the presentation of the picture embossed with the word “Wanted”, which you used to mark the gap for everyone to see.

The return of this painting shows once again that the issue of looted art has not been settled even over 70 years after the end of the Second World War.

It also illustrates something else, namely how closely we are cooperating in Europe today. It shows how, rather than vengeance, a deep friendship between Germany and Italy has grown over the course of many years. This is by no means something we can take for granted. And it is important to safeguard this achievement, including through gestures like the one we are celebrating together here today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Art brings us together. Art creates culture. Works of art facilitate identification and create identity. Is there anywhere we can we feel this more strongly as Europeans than here, in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, the nucleus of humanism? The idea that every human being is unique, that we are free and rational, is what constitutes human dignity.

This revolutionary idea spread from here across the entire continent. It is this common European heritage that unites us to this day. Herein lies the origin of our values, the core of our European identity.

An EU without freedom, without diversity, without solidarity, is like a museum without pictures. Like a vase without flowers – stripped of meaning.

But it is European solidarity that has been severely put to the test in recent years. Here in Italy, people have felt this particularly keenly. First in the form of the financial crisis, and in recent years also in the face of refugees and migrants coming across the Mediterranean.

If we are serious about European solidarity, about our common values, then we must not leave the Mediterranean countries to deal with this problem alone.

The people fleeing hunger and misery today cannot wait for all the member states in Europe to reach agreement.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There’s an Italian proverb that goes like this: “Tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare” – “between talking and acting lies the sea”.

If you want to describe the gulf between the ambition and reality of European solidarity, then this proverb is painfully apt.

Nice containers aren’t enough!

Flowers belong in vases! Pictures belong in museums!

And solidarity belongs to the EU!

This is what we want to achieve.

Grazie mille.

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