Still Searching for 63 Thousand Works of Art
#photography & visual arts
small, Still Searching for 63 Thousand Works of Art, Wojciech Kossak (1857-1942), "Portrait of Halina and Michał Mycielski among a Herd of Horses in Gałów", 1926, oil on canvas, courtesy of of the Museum, portret haliny i michala mycielskich_7047584.jpg
Poland is still searching for 63,000 works of art lost as a result of the Second World War. "We are still waiting for the return of Cranach's Madonna as well as Rafael's Portrait of a Young Man", says Elżbieta Rogowska, Head of the Division for Looted Art at the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Anna Bernat: 70 years after the end of World War II, we are still searching for art that was looted or taken. When it comes to cultural property, what has been recovered and what is still lost?
Elżbieta Rogowska: The percentage of artworks recovered is very small in comparison to the number of artworks that we are still searching for. We are however just as determined in the fight for a miniature worth a couple of thousand dollars as when dealing with an artwork valued in the millions of dollars. Consequently, 30 have returned to Poland in recent years. We are currently conducting 56 restitutive procedures in eight countries.
How do you identify that a particular painting, antique piece of furniture, old clock or beautiful set of porcelain is looted art?
Significant gaps in the history of the antique should ring alarm bells. Especially if it's unclear where the piece was or who it belonged to during the war. We can also find ownership markings and unidentified numbers on the back. If we have an artwork that falls under one of these categories we have to contact the Division for Looted Art of the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The specialist staff will be able to determine whether a given artwork is looted art or not. A list of the most sought-after works of art is available at http://lootedart.gov.pl/en/
Who is working on searching for and getting back the looted art?
Searching for lost artworks is part of our job description. We monitor the international art markets. We often receive information about artworks from museum workers, conservators, collectors and enthusiasts who've come across looted art. We are also the ones who conduct restitutive procedures. In the first stage we gather the necessary documentation: the origins of the object and circumstances under which it was lost. That also requires confirming the identity of the antique. How the procedures unfold depends on the other party and the circumstances under which the object was found. We cooperate with Polish embassies, the prosecutor's office, domestic and foreign law enforcement authorities. In particularly difficult cases we resort to the help of a legal office.
Which institution is responsible for identifying the provenance of an artwork?
Provenance is the full history and ownership of an item from the time of its discovery or creation to the present day, from which authenticity and ownership is determined. It is usually carried out by institutions that have their own collections – museums, libraries.
Is there a legal obligation to identify the origins of an artwork?
The ICOM Code of Professional Ethics sets out that every effort must be made to identify provenance. The requirement of identifying provenance and publishing the record is also mentioned in the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art from 1998.
Which artwork was restituted most recently?
The number of restituted artworks has been growing in recent years. The full list can be found at lootedart.gov.pl/en/. In 2011 we recovered Aleksander Gierymski's Jewess With Oranges. That recovery made headlines. Shortly after we retrieved Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowiczow's Negress, which is now in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, Julian Fałat's Hunting in Nieśwież and Before Hunting in Rytwiany. This March we recovered Jacob Jordaens' Saint Ivo, Advocate of the Poor, which can now be seen at the National Museum in Wrocław. A couple of days ago a card table from the furniture collection of King Stanislaus Augustus was returned to the Royal Łazienki Palace in Warsaw.
Another great achievement was the restitution of Francesco Guardi's Palace Steps from German hands. The painting was purchased in 1925 from the collector Leon Kranz and was part of the collection at the National Museum in Warsaw until 1939. Between November and December 1939, the painting was requisitioned and transported to a storehouse at the Jagiellonian library in Kraków. In 1943 it was transferred to Wawel Castle, where Hans Frank had set up residence. A year later, during the evacuation of the Governor General's Office it was taken to a castle in Sichów in Lower Silesia.
We don't know what happened to the painting after that. It was found on 24th December 1945 in Bavaria by the American army and was given over to a warehouse of cultural property in Wiesbaden, then to the Central Collecting Point in Munich. Because its provenance wasn't recorded, it ended up at the University of Heidelberg, as a piece of unknown origin [...].
The Polish Ministry of Culture, with the support of the Polish Foreign Ministry, achieved a breakthrough in the procedures with the Germans. In January 2014, they decided to give the painting back. It was handed over on 13th, March 2014.
Did the political and social transition after 1989 influence the manner, speed and quality of the recovery of works lost as a result of the Second World War? Could you shed more light on the differences between the early post-war period, the People's Republic of Poland and recovery in contemporary realities?
As soon as the war ended, in May 1945, the Office of Claims and Compensations was set up. It fell under the General Directorate of the Museum and Protection of Monuments of the Ministry of Culture. Among the most important recovered objects at that time were the Wawel arrasses, a collection of landscapes of Warsaw by Canaletto, the treasury of the Poznań and Gniezno cathedrals, and finally Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine.
Thanks to government-sponsored negotiations, the USSR returned 12 thousand works of art, transported in two stages, one in 1946, the other in 1956. Among them were collections of paintings from the National Museums in Warsaw and Poznań, Hans Memling's The Last Judgement and a collection of antique vases from Gołuchów.
The Office of Claims and Compensations was dissolved in the early 50s. The government was no longer interested in restitution. In 1961, one of the world's biggest collections of 136 tapestries, Polish coronation insignia, priceless artefacts of gold, silver, ceremonial maces and a weapons collection – all looted from Wawel castle – was recovered and brought from Canada to Poland. But that was the last of the revindication process in the post-war period.
And nothing changed till 1989?
In the early 90s, the government created a new position – the Government Plenipotentiary for Polish Cultural Heritage Abroad. Wartime losses were again being catalogued. Some artworks were found and procedures were put in motion to reclaim them. Back in wartime Poland, museum workers had risked their lives to gather and send to London information about art that was being looted.
In the early 90s, that information was verified and supplemented with the help of museums and regional research centres responsible for the protection of the cultural environment, as well as a group of collaborators. This is how the catalogue of wartime losses reached 63 thousand artworks. The majority of them are yet to be recovered. Work is ongoing.
How many wartime losses were retrieved from Russia, how many from Germany?
Russia and Germany are not the only two countries which have restituted Polish wartime losses. Artworks are scattered all around the world. They resurface in the United States, Switzerland, France, Austria, Great Britain, Turkmenistan. In recent years, we've recovered 30 artworks. Out of these, only seven came back from Germany. We managed to retrieve one painting, Pompeo Batoni's Apollo and Two muses in the early 90s. The Russians have yet to react to 20 restitution requests that we've put forward.
Is there a painting that the Ministry most wants to reclaim and one that is most missed by Polish museums?
I think that the biggest wish is to restore collections to their pre-war state. We want the works of Polish artists – Matejko, Wyspiański, Malczewski, Gierymski, Gerson, Pankiewicz, Boznańska to be brought back to our museums, as well as those of Brueghl, van Dyck, Cranach, Rubens, Picasso, or Rafael's famous Portrait of a Young Man.
Some say that wartime losses are irretrievable.
Culture is that which shapes us, turns a group of people of the same cultural circle into a community. The loss of material goods which express the ideas and history of that community is a sad and painful occurrence. The loss of cultural heritage meant not only the physical loss of objects of culture but de facto brutally strained historical continuity and cultural experiences.
Source: PAP, translated by MJ 18/05/2015