Looted WWII masterpiece goes back on display after being found in shopping centre car park
One of Poland’s most valuable works of art stolen during WWII has gone back on display after an impressive restoration by conservators – and one of the weirdest recoveries in Polish history.
Unveiled on Tuesday in the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art in the Kraków’s Cloth Hall, Maksymilian Gierymski's 1872 landscape Winter in a Small Town is considered a masterpiece of Polish art.
One of the best-known Polish artists of the 19th century, and a pioneer in landscape painting, Gierymski painted the piece just two years before his death and in 1938, the National Museum in Kraków bought it from a German art dealer.
Marzenna Sieklucka, who restored the painting, told TFN: “In the first days of World War Two, the work was ‘secured ‘ by Kajetan Muehlmann, who hung it in his office in what is now the main building of the AGH University of Science and Technology. During the war it was the headquarters of the General Government.”
Muehlmann was an Austrian art historian who was an officer in the SS. After the invasion of Poland, Göring appointed him Special Delegate for the Securing of Artistic Treasures in the Former Polish Territories.
In the General Government he emptied state and private collections, universities, churches and monasteries of all their valuable art for the Fuhrer.
He stole Gierymski’s painting in the first wave of thefts in 1939 soon after receiving his orders.
When museum staff entered the building in February 1945 to recover the painting, the room had been destroyed by a fire set by the retreating Germans.
Winter in a Small Town was not found inside. The painting was considered to have been destroyed and was categorised as a war loss.
Then, 72 years later in 2017, police found it wrapped up inside a tube in a shopping centre car park in Kraków, following a tip off.
The painting had been in the possession of a woman in the city after she had discovered it in her deceased grandmother’s apartment in 2007 with a note saying, “Return to the National Museum in Kraków.”
The woman, identified only as Joanna W-M, decided to keep it and, telling only her husband, kept it hidden away.
The painting’s existence only came to light when she and her husband had marital problems.
The National Museum in Krakow received a call from an unidentified man saying that he had a friend who was in the process of divorcing and that his wife probably owned a painting that belonged to the museum.
The museum informed the Ministry of Culture and the police.
Joanna W-M got wind that her husband had contacted the museum and moved the painting.
She asked her new partner to keep the painting valued at around PLN 800,000 and some other belongings safe for her. He kept them in his BMW for a few days.
A few days later, Joanna W-M wrote a message to her new partner saying that the police were at her flat and that the man should bring her things.
He drove to a shopping centre in the Bonarka district of Kraków where he waited for the woman. However, he did not wait long. He left the belongings, including a painting, on the ground in the car park. They were collected by police officers sometime later.
The couple were charged with misappropriation and destruction of the painting. The woman argued to the court that since she had not stolen the work, she thought that she had done nothing wrong.
She and her husband were sentenced to one year in prison, suspended for 12 months. The woman also received a fine of PLN 500.
When museum staff examined the painting, they found that the canvas had been cut out of its frame. The canvas is signed, dated and labelled with the museum's inventory numbers from 1938.
Restorer Marzena Sieklucka said: “It was most likely stored for over 70 years rolled up in a rather tight roll with a diameter of about 10 cm, this caused cracks and losses in the paint layer.”
The museum’s director Prof. Andrzej Szczerski told TFN: “This is the proverbial hidden treasure found in your basement or in your attic.
“The story tells us that some war losses are still in Poland. It is exceedingly rare but it does happen.
“It reminds us that there are tens of thousands of artworks still missing. So in this sense the Second World War has not ended.”