Over 25 ‘priceless’ engravings return to Gdańsk after they were feared lost forever

The works of Rafael and Aegidius Sadeler that are the most prominent in number. Pictured: Raphael Sadeler (1560–1628) Mountain Landscape with a Rainbow copper engraving. National Museum in Gdansk/Piotr Matusewicz/PAP

Described as “priceless”, and feared forever lost after vanishing at the end of WWII, 26 artworks have finally been returned to their rightful home at the National Museum in Gdańsk.

Dating from between the 16th and 19th century, included among the items known as the Kabrun collection are eight etchings by Wenzeslaus Hollar as well as a copper engraving by the Augsburg animalist Johann Elias Ridinger. 

The works of Rafael and Aegidius Sadeler that are the most prominent in number. Pictured: Raphael Sadeler (1560–1628) Mountain Landscape with a Rainbow copper engraving.National Museum in Gdansk

Also notable, is a work by Max Liebermann, known as one of the most exceptional German artists active during the expressionist era.

Yet it is the works of Rafael and Aegidius Sadeler that are the most prominent in number. Active in the second half of the 16th century and first half of the 17th century, their pastoral landscapes feature burbling rivers, country inns, arcing rainbows, rickety bridges and tangled woodland.

Active in the second half of the 16th century and first half of the 17th century, their pastoral landscapes feature burbling rivers, country inns, arcing rainbows, rickety bridges and tangled woodland. Pictured: Aegidius Sadeler II Inn with Travelers, 1600–1610, engraving, paper.National Museum in Gdansk

Known to have worked in the court of Rudolf II in Prague, their extraordinary works are stunning to admire.

“The relevance of the Kabrun collection for the National Museum in Gdańsk is entwined in its DNA,” said Jacek Friedrich the museum’s director. “It is with this collection that the whole institution began.”

A merchant by profession, Jakub Kabrun’s influence reached as far as Buenos Aires with his sugar, grain and timber business interests making him one of the city’s wealthiest residents.

The artworks were part of a huge collection amassed by Jakub Kabrun, a merchant by profession, and one of Gdańsk’s wealthiest residents.Public domain

It also lent him significant political leverage, and in 1807 he was part of the delegation that negotiated a financial settlement with Napoleon on behalf of the city.

However, Kabrun was also an avid bibliophile and art collector. Using his extensive European travels to acquire new works, by the time of his death in 1814, his collection amounted to approximately 7,000 graphic works alone.

Known also for his benevolence, social activism and love of the arts, it was no surprise to learn that Kabrun generously bequeathed his entire collection to the city.

Using his extensive European travels to acquire new works,  by the time of his death in 1814, his collection amounted to approximately 7,000 graphic works alone.Public domain

When the Stadtmuseum Danzig (municipal museum) was established in 1872 inside a former Franciscan monastery, the works inherited from Kabrun formed the bulk of the exhibition – in later years, this museum would morph to become part of the latter-day National Museum in Gdańsk.

In between, however, WWII left the city robbed – and in some cases quite literally – of its cultural heritage. In all, half-a-million works of art were lost because of the war, with the municipal museum recording losses of 60 percent.

Of these, thousands of the graphics accumulated by Kabrun disappeared. Speaking on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński said: “The Kabrun collection was taken by the Germans and most likely ended up in the province of Thuringia.

Bequeathed his entire collection to the city, during WWII thousands of Kabrun’s collection disappeared. Piotr Matusewicz/PAP

“This came under the administration of the Red Army in July of 1945 and we believe that the Russians then took the graphics somewhere else. Most likely, the ones that have now been returned were sold by a Red Army soldier for homemade alcohol and remained in the Gdańsk region.”

In 1956, 1,543 of the graphic works were returned, but since then tracing the rest has proved near impossible. In the years after, only 13 have been found and although the majority are believed to have ended up in Moscow, their final fate remains shrouded in mystery.  

“But now,” said Jacek Friedrich, “we have twenty-six which is twice as many as we have found in the previous decades.”

Included among the items known returned are eight etchings by Wenzeslaus Hollar as well as a copper engraving by the Augsburg animalist Johann Elias Ridinger. Pictured: Wenzeslaus Hollar The Golden Mean, 1641–1644 etching, paper 8.6x6.8 cm.National Museum in Gdansk

Credit for the discovery has been given to the Warsaw-based art historian and dealer Sylwester Rudnik who, whilst looking at the collection of Piotr Molenda, identified their provenance via a tiny seal that Kabrun was known to place on the items in his collection.

Without hesitation, Molenda immediately offered to return the works to their rightful owner without any conditions attached.

“This is the kind of civic attitude that prevails on the art market,” noted Gliński, “and because of this the entire handover was completed in a matter of weeks.”

“The donation of these works has given us hope that there is still a chance that we can recreate the lost collection,” added Jarosław Sellin of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.Piotr Matusewicz/PAP

As a result of their actions, both Molenda and Rudnik will receive a Badge of Merit for Polish Culture.

The discovery of the works has also raised hopes regarding the rest of Kabrun’s collection. “The donation of these works has given us hope that there is still a chance that we can recreate the lost collection,” added Jarosław Sellin of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

Now awaiting restoration, they will ultimately go on public display alongside other artefacts recovered by the institution in recent years.