Letter revealing last known movements of WWII’s most important looted artwork uncovered
The mystery behind what happened to the most important painting to go missing during World War II could be a step closer to being solved after the discovery of an old letter.
Said to be written by an SS officer in 1947, the letter is the first documentary evidence that Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man was transported at the end of the war from Kraków to Germany.
The Silesian Bridge Foundation which is digging for WWII treasure at an old palace in Poland said they received the letter from German sources several weeks ago.
In the five-page letter, an SS officer named Michaelis writes to a friend about his surprise at seeing the painting.
He also mentions someone called Hanke who is thought to be Karl Hanke, the Gauleiter of Lower Silesia and later the last Reichsführer SS after Heinrich Himmler was arrested in April 1944.
In the letter Michaelis wrote: “Yes, Hanke was right, the boxes contained cultural goods from Krakow.
“When I think back it was once a collection, (of) Flämming.
“You know, my dear friend, I am passionate about culture, but this was too much for me. Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man'' with old stamps on the back, oval and square, signed 1514.”
Bart Zelaytys from Silesian Bridge said: “This is the first written document that tells us at least in part what happened to the painting after it left Kraków.
“Finding the lost Raphael would be the biggest sensation in the art world since the end of the war.”
The group say they received the letter from the descendants of senior Nazis who now wish to make atonement for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the war.
The author of the letter, Michaelis, possibly a pseudonym according to Silesian Bridge, also penned a war diary in which he described how he deposited vast amounts of gold and loot at 11 locations in Lower Silesia and the Opole region in the final stages of the war as the Red Army raced across German-occupied Eastern Europe.
Silesian Bridge has released the last page of the letter containing the reference to the Raphael painting. However, the letter contains a further four pages, which Silesian Bridge say they are translating and analysing.
In 1798, the painting was purchased by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski who took it to Poland, along with da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine and various Roman antiquities.
The portrait was displayed in the private museum of his mother, Princess Isabella Czartoryska, along with other valuable pieces of art representing important events in Poland’s history.
When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the painting along with the others were hidden in the outbuilding of one of the family’s palaces in the small Polish town of Sieniawa.
On 14 September 1939, German troops entered Sieniawa and plundered the hiding place taking jewellery and precious royal artefacts but not the paintings.
At the end of September 1939, the paintings were transported to the palace in Pełkinie before being seized by the Gestapo.
Initially sent to Berlin and Dresden before arriving in Linz where they became part of Hitler’s private collection, in 1944 they were sent to Kraków as a gift for Hans Frank who was the installed ruler of occupied Poland.
There he hung them in Wawel Castle which he had taken as a private residency.
This was the last place that Portrait of a Young Man was seen.
When the Germans evacuated Kraków later that month ahead of the Soviet offensive, it is thought that Frank took the paintings with him to Silesia and then to his own villa in Neuhaus am Schliersee.
However, when the Americans arrested Frank on 3 May 1945, they found the Da Vinci and Rembrandt paintings but not the Raphael. Frank was executed for his war crimes in 1946.
After the war, the Czartoryski family made consistent attempts to find the painting but were hampered by the fact that Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. The family renewed its efforts in 1991.
Hopes that the painting had been pinpointed were raised in 2012 when a news report claimed that a Polish foreign ministry spokesperson had said that the painting was in a bank deposit box. It was later claimed that the news story was a hoax.
In 2016, the Polish government bought the two existing paintings of the Holy Trinity and with them the claim to the Raphael if it should ever be found.
Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine and Rembrandt's Landscape with the Good Samaritan hang today in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków.
The museum offers a reward of USD 100 million for its return, which is likely to be far below its real value.
For more about the hunt for buried treasure in the Polish palace, click HERE.