Under The Hammer & Sickle: Rare sculpture from one of Poland’s most famous sculptors set to go for a fortune at auction after lying ‘forgotten’ for 30 years
A rare early work by one of Poland’s best-known artists has gone on public display for the first time in nearly thirty years ahead of an auction due to be held on March 28th at Warsaw’s DESA Unicum.
Cast by Alina Szapocznikow at the beginning of her professional career, the forthcoming sale of Przyjaźń (Friendship) has sparked widespread interest as well as a dubious ownership claim from the same institution that had originally consigned the work to the scrapheap.
Szapocznikow, who had earlier survived spells in the Łódź ghetto and a series of concentration camps, first submitted her design in 1953 as part of a competition held to celebrate Polish-Soviet friendship. Whilst her entry failed to win, it was commissioned the following year. Measuring nearly three metres in height, the giant bronze sculpture depicted two males joined in fraternal embrace and carrying a party banner. Installed inside the Palace of Culture & Science, it stood at the head of the main entrance hall for close on four decades where it became one of the most identifiable points of interest in Poland’s most iconic building.
“When the political transformation occurred sculptures associated with Communism were ripped down across the country,” says Juliusz Windorbski, the CEO of the DESA Unicum auction house. “The director of the Palace of Culture & Science knew that Przyjaźń would be a target and feared that, because of its sheer size, any attempted removal could result in the interiors of the Palace being damaged.
”Having issued a declaration of will announcing that the Palace no longer wished to own the sculpture, the director at the time, Waldemar Sawicki, then called in a professional firm to rid the building of this work once and for all. This they did, with a team working overnight in 1989 to shift Szapocznikow’s statue. Such was its size, however, that the removal crew had to saw off the banner and arms before being able to fit it through the doors. At this, no-one batted an eyelid. The insinuation was clear, this was an artwork of all but zero value.
In lieu of payment, Zbigniew Bogusz, the boss of the firm entrusted with the statue’s removal, was allowed to keep it. But rather than selling it on for scrap, the entrepreneur placed it in his garden where it remained forgotten by the public for several years. “Gazeta Wyborcza wrote about it a couple of times,” says Windorbski, “but no-one really wanted it – I’m told it was offered to museums for the price of the metal, but the only one that expressed any real interest baulked at the transportation costs that they would also have to cover.
”Since those times, though, Szapocznikow’s stock has risen to the point that she has become the country’s most celebrated female artist. With the statue subject to a meticulous restoration (minus the arms and banner which have long disappeared), its guide price has been set at between PLN 600,000 and 900,000. This could well be exceeded. “A friend of mine is a specialist when it comes to the artist in question,” says Windorbski, “and even he admits he has no idea what it might actually fetch – according to him, such is its importance that the price has the potential to range from a million złotys to a million euros.”
Naturally, this bombshell news has left Palace officials reeling and making last ditch attempts to recover the piece that they once cast aside. Nonetheless, their accusations that Bogusz obtained the statue illegally have fallen on deaf ears. “We’ve sought three different expert legal opinions,” says Windorbski, “and all agree that the auction can go ahead.”
Weighing approximately 3,000 kilos, it took a team of 25 people several hours to manoeuvre the work into DESA Unicum, with Windorbski readily confessing that no other artwork has proved more logistically challenging for his team. However, his excitement is palpable. “It’s the only sculpture by Szapocznikow from this period that survives, and I’m delighted to be involved in its second life. If you ask me about the magic of Przyjaźń then it’s a mix of things: its history; its value; and the artist behind it – her whole life was fascinating and this work demonstrates just how innovative she was; lastly, it’s simply just a great piece of art.”
Windorbski, who himself recalls sitting by the statue as part of a school excursion when he was a 12-year-old boy, bristles with visible pride at being entrusted with the responsibility of handing this work a new lease of life. “As an auction house,” he says, “it’s important to bring very special things to the market, and this is exactly that.”
Asked to speculate what the next chapter of Przyjaźń’s story might hold, Windorbski seems certain that the future is bright. “Our most important clients are keeping their cards close to their chest,” he says, “but I can say we already have four or five very serious buyers interested. While I’d personally like to see it remain in Poland, the most important thing is that at this price you know that it’s going to be sold to someone that truly cares about it. I’m so happy that the current owner had the foresight not to destroy it, and I’m equally happy that it’s now going to go to a good collector.”
Przyjaźń will stand on public view inside the DESA Unicum auction house on ul. Piękna 1A until March 28th. For details, see: desa.pl