Poland’s “Lost Museum”

LONDON–A few years ago, a Polish friend and I had lunch in a cozy little café in Warsaw’s Powlisle district. Somehow during the lunch, we got on the subject of Poland’s lost art works that were stolen by the Nazis in World War II. I was absolutely riveted as we talked about the valuable pieces of art either destroyed or looted from Polish and Jewish homes, museums and businesses during the war. I kind of became obsessed and spent hours of time researching about the looted art.

Thanks to a Tweet by Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorskii, I learned that last weekend, during Night of the Museum in Warsaw (when all museums in the city are open—for free— into the wee hours) a presentation was given about some of the art works that had been stolen and were then found, as well as those pieces that are still believed to be out there. The Lost Museum is an Internet platform (which, rather surprisingly and annoyingly, is only in Polish at this point) and its program council is made up of some of Poland’s crème de le crème of the museum and art world. Members include art historians and scholars from Warsaw’s Royal Castle, the National Library, the Art History Institute at Warsaw University and National Archives.

The Lost Museum project is a virtual museum that informs readers and viewers about works of art that were either foreign masterpieces held in Polish collections or works that were done by Polish artists and painters. Some of the works are believed to have been stolen while others are pieces that were destroyed, mostly during World War II and in the early years of the Cold War. Some of the works in the “lost” collection include “Reposing Lioness” by Albrecht Dürer and the 17th century van Dyck painting “Ecce Homo.” Another work—Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Madonna and Child” is actually not lost at all but housed in the Pushkin National Museum in Warsaw. There have been eight years of legal and diplomatic wranglings –so far to no avail—to get the painting back to Poland, which was taken by a Red Army major sometime during or soon after the war.

the-negressThe project, initiated by the Ad Artis Fundacja Sztuki (Ad Artis Art Foundation), is focused on restoring the memory of the works to Polish and European audiences. If they are gone forever, at least there is an archive and a body of knowledge that will exist about the pieces and there are hopes the project will also encourage scholarly research. “The role of our project is to create a collection of lost works in a virtual museum,” Paulina Goliszewska, told Culture.pl in an interview. “Since the start of our activities four years ago, [new additions] to the collection are presented at the Museum Night event in cooperation with affiliated institutions, then presented on the website.” She added that the main theme for this year was “Collections and Collectors”, which focused on works from the collections of King Stanisław August and Zofia and Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński.

The virtual collection of the Lost Museum is just a fraction of the missing works that have been cataloged by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, which also run the sites www.skradzionezabytki.pland kolekcje.mkidn.gov.pl dedicated to the lost pieces. There are currently almost 60,000 records of Polish and foreign produced works of art including sculpture, painting and archaeological artifacts. The Ministry also has catalogued works that were either stolen or lost from Polish libraries.

Aleksander-Gierymski-ikonaThough the fate of many of these works remains unknown, some have since been rediscovered. “Orange Vendor” by Aleksander Gierymski, which was stolen from Warsaw’s National Museum during the war—was found at an auction in Hamburg, Germany in 2010 and was given back to Poland in 2011. Museum director Agnieszka Morawinska described it as a “priceless masterpiece” and added that its return was a “very special day and a true gift for the museum.” The piece– believed to have been painted in 1880-1881–was one of several pieces done by the artist who painted Jewish life in the poorer parts of the Polish capital. Another successful painting repatriation was “The Negress” by 19th century Polish artist Anna Bilinkska-Bohdanowicz. Again, stolen in World War II, it was also discovered in a German auction in two years ago and was returned to the National Museum in 2012. Last year also saw the recovery of Lucas Cranach’s “Madonna under the Fir Tree”, which had been painted for the cathedral in Wroclaw in the early 16th century, and had been taken to Berlin during the war.  If I was in charge of Poland’s lost and stolen cultural heritage, I think I would be hanging out at art auctions in Germany.

First photo, Lost Museum presentation at Night of the Museums, the second “The Negress” and third, “Orange Vendor”