That’s a Good Friday! Missing for 30-years, stolen 16th century icon returns home to Olsztyn
Stolen in 1990, and recovered some thirty-years later, a 16th century icon has been returned to its rightful home at the Museum of Warmia & Mazury.
Titled ‘Trzy Marie u grobu’ (Three Marys at a grave), the work was painted onto a wooden board using the so-called ‘egg tempera’ technique, a method that was widely used until being later phased out in favour of oil paints.
Depicting three Marys gathered around the body of Christ, according to museologists the work has no equivalent in Poland.
Measuring 48 centimetres by 68 centimetres, and believed to have been painted at the beginning of the 16th century, it was stolen in 1990 from an exhibition of icons in Olsztyn Castle (home, also, to the Museum of Warmia & Mazury).
Occurring at the dead of night, the daring heist saw thieves break-in through a 10-metre high stained glass window after first cutting through a safety net and scaling the castle ramparts. In all, 29 icons were taken, with Trzy Marie u grobu being the most valuable.
After seemingly hitting a dead end, the investigation into the raid was discontinued in 1991.
However, this was not the end of the story. In the summer of 2020, Mariusz Wiśniewski, an employee of the Polish Culture Ministry, spotted one of the missing icons displayed on the website of the Icon Museum in Recklinghausen in Germany’s North Rhine-Westphalia region.
Quoting an EU directive relating to the restitution of stolen works of art, the Polish ministry reached out to the Recklinghausen institution who, in turn, proved more than willing to cooperate.
At the time, Elżbieta Rogowska, a director at the Culture Ministry, said: “it was for the first time that this procedure was applied in Europe, and thanks to the kindness of the Recklinghausen museum a lengthy court battle was averted.”
A similar story found itself playing out when, once again, a Culture Ministry worker recognized another stolen work in December of last year.
Having seen Trzy Marie u grobu listed in a catalogue of a completed auction of Russian and Greek icons held in Dusseldorf, the Ministry contacted their opposite numbers in Germany and swiftly came to an agreement for its return.
Finally unveiled on Friday, the ceremony was attended by museum employees and those Culture Ministry workers credited with tracing the painting in the first place. During the proceedings, a letter penned by Jarosław Sellin, the Deputy Minister of Culture, was read out, with Sellin quick to praise all involved:
“I would like to thank the employees of the Museum of Warmia & Mazury who contributed to the recovery of both this and the previous icon,” he wrote.
“I would also like to thank my colleagues from the Department of Cultural Goods Restitution [at the Ministry of Culture], who first recognized both works on the internet as identical to the objects registered in the national list of stolen and illegally removed monuments, and then successfully handled both cases.”
Sellin further expressed his gratitude to the German side who, he said, had agreed on “the unconditional return” of both works.
Although police investigations have since hit a wall, Sellin used the opportunity to pledge that the Ministry would not relinquish the hunt for the stolen items.
“I assure you that the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage will make every effort to find and recover them,” he declared.