‘Priceless’ Stradivarius violin looted from Poland during WWII found in Paris
A priceless violin looted from the National Museum in Warsaw during WWII has been traced to an owner in France.
Handmade in 1719 by Antonio Stradivari – arguably the most talented of all of the Stradivarius family – the instrument is one of only 650 Stradivarius violins that have survived to this day.
Known as the Lauterbach Stradivarius, it acquired its name on account of its prior owner, a 19th German violin virtuoso called Johann Christoph Lauterbach.
Owned only by a handful of people, previous custodians are thought to have included Charles Philippe Lafont (the chamber violinist to Tsar Alexander I) and the acclaimed luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.
It was Vuillaume who sold it to Lauterbach, and in 1900 it was then sold to the Łódź-based industrialist Henryk Grohman.
Not only was Grohman regarded as one of the city’s biggest textile magnates, but he was also known as a patron of the arts.
His lavish mansion earned a reputation as something of a cultural salon, and it was here that the likes of author Henryk Sienkiewicz and Prime Minister Ignacy Paderewski found themselves entertained.
When Grohman died in 1939, he reportedly bequeathed his entire estate to the Second Republic of Poland: this included not just his villa but also a collection of instruments that numbered a rare 1734 Guarneri violin and the Lauterbach Stradivarius.
Passed to the National Museum in Warsaw, steps were taken to safeguard it following the German occupation and it was stored, along with other high-value instruments, inside a sealed mahogany case behind a wall in the museum’s chapel.
Personally overseeing this was the chief conservator of the National Museum in Warsaw, Bohdan Marconi, who later testified to government authorities that he had hidden it inside a wall under a stairwell.
Despite these precautions, the violin disappeared in 1944. However, the trail did not end there, and in 1948 an instrument matching its description was discovered by an American officer, Stefan P. Munsing, inside the Heinrichsthal home of SS major Theodor Blank.
Thought to have been taken into American custody whilst awaiting restitution, a document dating from October 1948 appears to confirm this: “The famous violin x already closed in Hesse.”
For those investigating the case, this was a clear indicator that the Lauterbach Stradivarius had been found and was heading back to its rightful home. Ultimately, it never made this journey, a point confirmed by Polish authorities in 2008 when the Ministry of Culture began re-examining cases of stolen cultural works.
Now, as reported by Le Parisien, the 78-year-old mystery has been solved by Pascale Bernheim, a Frenchman specialising in Nazi-era provenance research and the recovery of looted instruments.
The big break appears to have come after an anonymous individual approached Bernheim’s foundation, Musique et Spoliations, claiming to be in the possession of a violin identical in its description.
After apparent confirmation of the violin’s legitimacy, Bernheim and his colleague, Corinne Hershkovitch, are now working with the National Museum in Warsaw to establish the legal ownership status of the violin.
Thought to be valued at EUR 10 million, descendants of the Grohman family could stand to claim it as their property; according to Hershkovitch, a legal expert, the violin was only given to the museum “to look after” as opposed “to own”.
This, though, has been complicated by a 2021 amendment to the law that placed a 30-year time cap on legal challenges relating to seized property.