Beth Ann McFadden had always sensed there was something strange about the old paintings stored under blankets in her family basement and attics growing up in New Jersey.
"Nobody talked about them," McFadden, 45, told Newsday Wednesday. "I knew they were possibly taken from a museum in Germany, but honestly I didn't know."
After she inherited the artwork, McFadden, along with friend Barry Pedersen, took off on a search to uncover the history of what turned out to be a trove of paintings illegally taken from Germany during the chaotic closing days of World War II. On Wednesday, the art was returned to German officials for repatriation to the city of Pirmasens.
"I didn't want anything for it, I just wanted to give it back," said McFadden, who lives in Lake Norman, N.C., where she works as a legal assistant at a law firm.
A total of 11 paintings were turned over to German officials during a news conference Wednesday at the Goethe-Institut, a cultural organization in Manhattan. Eight of the paintings were given back by McFadden and another three by an American woman officials didn't identify.
According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the oil paintings had been in the Pirmasens city museum and stored during the war in a school. Three of them were done by Heinrich Buerkel, an artist born in Pirmasens. The pieces, depicting rural scenes and portraits of royalty, range in value from $50,000 to $4,000, said officials.
The school was captured by American troops in March 1945 and the hidden artwork plundered, federal investigators said. About 50 pieces were lost during the Allied invasions, they said.
McFadden said her great uncle Harry Gurskey, of New Jersey, was an American soldier and came into possession of eight paintings. It wasn't clear how Gurskey, who died in the 1980s, actually gained possession of the artwork, she said.
Officials hope her actions will encourage others who have art of questionable provenance to do the right thing.
"Without the integrity and goodwill of Beth Ann McFadden, the repatriation of these paintings to the Pirmasens Museum could not have taken place," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said.