WASHINGTON - The family of an American tank commander who won three historic paintings playing poker during World War II returned the stolen art treasures on Tuesday to their rightful owners.
Two more paintings acquired by a librarian while serving for the US army in Germany in late 1945 were also handed over during a ceremony at the State Department in Washington after the families had contacted a US foundation that tracks down missing artwork.
"These paintings are just the tip of the iceberg of the hundreds of thousands of paintings and other cultural items still missing since World War II," said Robert Edsel, the founder and chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation.
The foundation is named after a US task force of museum directors, curators and educators who protected cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II, an achievement memorialized in the 2014 George Clooney movie "The Monuments Men."
Major William Oftebro of the 750th tank battalion obtained the three paintings while he was responsible for guarding a potassium mine near the city of Dessau in what is today the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Local museum officials had stored their collection underground to save it from Allied bombing raids that were flattening cities in Nazi Germany.
According to the Monuments Men Foundation, Oftebro mailed the artworks by 17th-century Flemish painter Frans Francken III, 18th-century German artist Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich and his Austrian contemporary Franz de Paula Ferg back home, telling his family that he had won them in a poker game.
Years after Oftebro's death, his stepson James Hetherington contacted the Dallas-based Monuments Men Foundation last August after he had learned about their mission through the George Clooney movie, which is based on one of Edsel's books.
Edsel used the Hollywood fame to establish what he calls "America's most wanted for culture," a toll free tip line for missing artworks from World War II which in many cases crossed the Atlantic illegally.
"This has proved very successful," he said, adding that his team is still scouring through hundreds of leads.
The second discovery presented on Tuesday, which involves a painting of Britain's Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter, and a painting of Charles I of England, was also made possible by the hotline.