Trailblazing in the 21st century? A Brief Summary of Poland’s Restitution Efforts for Holocaust Looted Artwork

By Adir Paner*

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War Losses, Page of the Min. of Foreign Affairs, Rep. of Poland

Situated in the center of the theatre of war during World War II (the “War”), Poland’s wartime losses of cultural goods were vast and, at the same time, exceptionally difficult to assess accurately because many of the original records were removed or intentionally destroyed by the German occupiers or Soviet troops. For this reason, the often-quoted number of 516,000 lost works of art does not reflect the true enormity of the losses sustained. One of the best known examples of a lost work is Portrait of a Young Man (1513-1514) by Raphael, a painting that was stolen from Poland by the Nazis and is regarded by many historians as the most important painting missing during the War. However, this is just one of the thousands of looted works on the list maintained by the Ministry of Culture and various national institutions tasked with recovery of Polish valuables. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland “War Losses.”

In recent years, Poland seems to have become particularly active in researching and recovering looted cultural property that went missing after the War, by monitoring art auctions and seeking restitution from private and public institutions around the world. The process is time and labor intensive, and largely affected by political relations, as illustrated by one of the recent successes, the 2014 return of eighteenth century painter Francesco Guardi’s Palace Stairs. Guardi’s work was located in Stuttgart Germany and restituted to Poland by Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The painting was looted during WWII from the National Museum in Warsaw. Guardi’s painting was requisitioned in 1939 from the National Museum in Warsaw by German authorities. After WWII it was shipped to the Central Collecting Point in Wiesbaden, and transferred to the University of Heidelberg, and finally to the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. The 2014 handover of the painting is a visible sign of mutual trust between Germany and Poland. More importantly the transaction is evidence of the effectiveness of active dialogue and joint efforts to return looted cultural goods. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs Republic of Poland “Francesco Guardi ‘Palace stairs’ returns to Poland.”

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Jean-Antoine Houdon, Bust of the goddess Diana, (18th century)

A more recent example of a Polish restitution occurred in late October 2015 when an eighteenth century bust of the goddess Diana looted from the Royal Lazienki Palace in Warsaw by the Nazis was returned to the Polish government following an amicable resolution with Austria. The successful restitution effort was made possible through the diplomatic support offered by the Polish Ambassador to Austria, Artur Lorkowski, and the collaborative pro-bono work of the Art Recovery Group and the Polish Ministry of Culture. The Houdon bust was scheduled to be returned to the Polish government ahead of a formal restitution ceremony at the Royal Lazienki Palace in November of 2015. Though this bust is returning to its rightful owners, there are still many works of art that remain in Austria as a result of Nazi plundering, and the Polish government persists in its efforts to find and recovery all of them.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559)

According to Artnet News article “Nazi Loot Claim Bruegel Painting,” Poland is currently pursuing another claim against Austria; its largest claim to date in its effort to restitute a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). The Renaissance masterpiece, whose value is estimated at $77 million, was purportedly seized by Charlotte von Wächter, the wife of Krakow’s Nazi governor Otto von Wächter, during the German occupation of Poland. The painting is currently displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Art Recovery Group is facilitating the Bruegel the Elder restitution efforts. It’s CEO, Christopher A. Marinello released a powerful statement in regards to their restitution efforts: “[c]ountless objects looted by the Nazis remain unaccounted for and we encourage the art market to exercise greater diligence in establishing the true provenance of works bought and sold. Passing these problems onto the next generation is not the answer, they need to be resolved now.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 3.15.47 PMPoland’s efforts to recover their own cultural valuables is laudable and praiseworthy; however, hypocritically, Poland has not been as helpful in restituting cultural property belonging to other sovereigns. Poland is not the only nation in Europe that had artworks stolen from their collections both private and public. The sheer number of displaced property from the Soviet Union, France, the Netherlands, etc., etc., remains hard to ascertain. Austria and Germany have set examples that should encourage all nations to collaborate in the restitution of property to its rightful owners; both national and private entities that find looted art in their collections should look to the laudable examples of restorative justice set by these nations.  

Over 40 nations were signatories to the 1998 Washington Principles, where they endorsed the concept of seeking fair and just solutions to Nazi-era art claims, which would suggest that any trailblazing must be a two-way street.

*About the Author: Adir Paner is a Center for Art Law Legal Intern (Fall 2015) as a part of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law Holocaust Restitution Claims Practicum.

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