The amazing world of intricately organised art looting, underpinning the familiar World War II history, is the stuff of suspense fiction, except that it actually happened.
Famous works of art of the prewar Polish collections were often hidden by their owners, discovered by the German occupants, stolen, hidden again, evacuated to Germany, only to be looted yet again by the Russian liberators.
Some of them, arrested in Germany by the Allies, like Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine, or later displayed in Soviet galleries, like Pompeo Batoni’s Apollo and Two Muses, were subsequently restored to Poland. A few were traced down and retrieved later, thanks to arduous investigations by Polish art historians as well as intricate diplomatic and legal manoeuvres.
Many, like Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man are still missing, although their mysterious sightings reported by word of mouth add fuel to the flickering flame of the hope that they have survived World War II and will eventually return home.
Their fascinating stories have just been published in a book by Monika Kuhnke and Włodzimierz Kalicki Sztuka Zagrabiona. Uprowadzenie Madonny (Looted Art. The Kidnapping of the Madonna).
After reading it, it’s hard to rid oneself of the disquieting thought that the world of art dealers and collectors is tainted with undisclosed origins of many masterpieces, of which neither the famous auction houses, nor the new owners want to learn more.
In 1930s Professor Dagobert Frey, an outstanding German art and architecture historian, embarks on a series of study trips to Poland to do research for a monumental project—a book on Polish art. Travelling with him are another two scholars, Eberhardt Hempel and Günter Grundmann. Their extensive visits cover Silesia, Cracow, Sandomierz, Kielce, Lwów, Tarnopol, Lublin, Warsaw, Płock, Toruń, Wilno, Grodno, Łódź, Poznań, Chełmno and a host of smaller towns and villages. Museums, libraries, galleries, aristocratic manors, monasteries and state archives are happy to welcome them and let them take notes, see, and photograph everything, even the things the public has no access to.
During the war the Director of the National Museum in Warsaw Stanisław Lorenz wrote in his diary:
In October 1939, Professor Dagobert Frey, a colleague with whom I used to be well acquainted before the war, whom I received in Wilno, and later on in Warsaw, and took trips with him during the 1939 International Congress of the History of Art in England, turned up in the museum with his colleague Dr Josef Mühlmann. They were accompanied by the gestapo. Professor Frey consulted his prewar notebook to point to the most valuable exhibits for immediate confiscation.
The three most famous masterpieces of the Czartoryski art collection, Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine, Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man and Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan, were to be incorporated into Hitler’s Linz museum’s art collection. Before that, however, they were brought to Berlin for an exhibition of the greatest looted works of art. What prevented it was the personal ambition of the ruler of the General gouvernement province General Governor Hans Frank. Thanks to his Machiavellian intrigues, Leonardo, Raphael and Rembrandt returned to Wawel Castle, the governor’s own residence. His enemies within the ranks of the Reich’s top brass did not give in, however, and in 1942 managed to move the three masterpieces from the Wawel Castle into a bank vault in Berlin, citing the threat of the Allied bombers.
Eventually General Governor Frank prevailed in the Nazi battle for control over art robberies in the province of Generalgouvernement. In 1943 he organised an exhibition of art confiscated in his region and to that end ordered the three paintings to be brought back to him. At that time he discreetly started to evacuate the looted works of art, crate by crate, trunk by trunk, to his private villa on Schliersee in Bavaria and to his apartment in Munich, while supervising the official evacuation of German war trophies. The Portrait of a Young Man disappeared from official German documents in 1944 between Wawel Castle, the governor’s official residence, Krzeszowice Palace, his private residence, and Seichau Palace (today’s Sichów, Frank’s residence after the evacuation from Cracow). The book written by Niklas Frank about his father indicates that the Portrait of a Young Man ended up in Franks’s Bavarian villa on the lake.
In 1976 Maria Lewkowicz, an employee of Fryderyk Chopin Society, was completely taken aback while watching an East German TV series. On one of the walls of the apartment in which the film was shot she saw the lost portrait of Chopin’s sister Isabella, by Ambroży Mieroszewski. She knew the portraits of Chopin’s family by heart, and had no doubt what she was looking at. In 1981 Hanna Wróblewska-Straus, the director of Fryderyk Chopin Museum, was watching another East German film on TV and she realised with a start that the lost portrait of the famous composer himself was used to decorate the set. From subsequent official correspondence it transpired that the set decorator used copies. The request on the part of Fryderyk Chopin Society to make the copies available for appraisal were turned down.
In early 1980s Professor Jan Białostocki, the curator at the National Museum in Warsaw was paid a mysterious visit. An American turned up in his office and asked for his professional opinion on a certain work of art, producing a photograph of Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man. The visitor insisted on a private appraisal and didn’t want to approach the museum officially. He seemed to suggest that the painting was in Australia. Since then, more than once, various people have claimed to have seen Raphael’s painting. A recurring version has it, that it rests in a bank vault in a ‘safe country’.
In 1990s one of Polish art historians Michał Woźniak was working on a monograph devoted to a 15th century sculpture of Madonna and Child, stolen from Poland in the war. It was an example of the gothic so called Beautiful style that sought, through its flowing lines and full colour, to achieve an idealised realism. He discovered a previously unknown photograph of the statue, published in East Germany, in a book by a Russian historian Mikhail Liebmann. Whether the photo was taken in the Soviet Union or GDR, it’s impossible to say. He tried to find out from the author who moved to Israel since, but Liebmann said he had no recollection of it.
An exact number of the works of art stolen from Poland during World War II is unknown. After 1989 an effort was made to make a list of them. Since prewar documents on private collections, inadequate and scarce as they were, mostly got destroyed in the war, the task is extremely difficult. So far the count is 63,000 individual items. In many cases the term individual item denotes an entire collection. The most destruction took place in 1939, and in the years 1944-45, as the war front advanced. The Germans were particularly intent on destroying libraries as part of the elimination of Polish intellectual elites. The Soviet Union started stealing art from Poland soon after invading it in September 1939, but it wasn’t until 1944-45, thanks to the so called trophy divisions advancing in the wake of the Red Army, that it embarked on a systematic robbery. It is impossible to tell how many works of art were looted at that time. The overall number of cultural heritage objects destroyed or stolen by the occupants as well as the liberators is estimated at almost 600,000. After the war only a very modest part of the loot was returned.