(CN) - The U.S. government returned a 16th century painting titled "Christ Carrying the Cross" to the family who lost it to looters during the Nazi occupation of France.
Known also as "Cristo Portacroce," the painting remained in Italy after High Renaissance artist Girolamo Romano created it around 1538.
After a gallery owner legally exported it to Paris for auction in the early 20th century, Federico Gentili di Giuseppe placed the winning bid. He kept the painting until dying of natural causes in 1941, months before the Nazis invaded France.
His children and grandchildren fled to the United States and Canada, and his other family members died in concentration camps.
"After Gentili died, his estate was auctioned by French Vichy authorities in 1941, acting in concert with the Nazi occupiers; and the Gentili heirs were prohibited by law from returning to claim the painting," according to a statement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Several extraordinary anti-Semitic laws had been imposed, depriving French nationals who had left France of their nationality and arranging for confiscation of their property. Another German order, dated Sept. 27, 1940, established that, 'Jews who had fled from the occupied zone were banned from returning there.' As a result, the painting was sold in the illegal, forced sale of 1941. The painting was thereafter acquired by the Pinacoteca di Brera in 1998."
Giuseppe's grandchildren reached a watershed moment in their efforts to reclaim the artwork in 1999, when the Paris Court of Appeals forced the Louvre to return five paintings in a landmark decision for World War II plunder.
In March 2011, "Christ Carrying the Cross" was imported into the U.S. for a temporary exhibit at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, Fla.
On a lead from Interpol, the U.S. Attorney's Office seized the painting months later and returned it to Giuseppe's heirs Wednesday.
The Washington Post reported that the family intends the sell the painting, estimated at up to $3.5 million.