Stunning 16th century artwork feared lost after WWII returned following landmark court case
A valuable work of art listed as a war loss has been recovered following a civil court case, making its return the first victory of its kind.
The painting, the History of Apollo and Daphne from 1592 by Dutch artist Abraham Bloemaert, was returned to the city’s branch of the National Museum after a lengthy court case by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
For over 60 years, the painting which hung in the Silesian Museum of Fine Arts up to 1945 in Breslau, as Wrocław was known before WWII, was considered one of the most outstanding items in the museum’s collection of European paintings.
In 1942 it was hidden by German art conservators in a museum warehouse in a church in Lower Silesia and remained there until the end of the war.
Following the arrival of the Red Army, the hiding place was ransacked by Soviet soldiers and local looters, resulting in the loss of around 100 paintings, including the one by Bloemaert.
The painting was believed to be lost forever, but ten years ago a woman came to the museum with a proposal to sell a painting by Bloemaert.
It soon turned out that the painting was on the list of Polish wartime losses maintained by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
After the war, under international agreements Poland gained the right to works of culture in what are known as the Recovered Territories in western and northern Poland.
Museum staff tried to convince the previous owner that her rights to the painting were doubtful, and when the talks ended in failure, the culture ministry took the case to court.
At an unveiling of the work, Jarosław Sellin, the deputy minister culture, said: “This valuable work was recovered after several years by the State Treasury in court, which is one of the most arduous and complex ways to recover property.
“I would particularly like to stress that this is the first civil trial won for a work of art that is a Polish war loss.”
The painting, which depicts the history of the passion of Apollo for the nymph Daphne, is one of the best examples of North European Mannerism.
Compared to Caravaggio, Bloemaert was highly valued in his lifetime. The History of Apollo and Daphne was one of the most valuable paintings in Breslau collections before the war.
The list of Polish war losses from World War Two includes 63,000 records. It is commonly believed that most of them were taken abroad. However, according to the culture ministry the majority were not deported abroad, but remained in Poland.
The History of Apollo and Daphne is not the first Wrocław war loss recovered by the culture ministry. In recent years, Portrait of a Lady by Lizinka de Mirbel, Street with the Ruins of the Castle by Robert Śliwińśki and Via Cassia near Rome by Oswald Achenbach have all been recovered.
Other works lost from pre-war public collections in Wrocław are still being sought by the culture ministry.