Poland’s mission to recover precious art that the Nazis stole
During World War Two, many of Poland’s finest works of art were taken by the Nazis.
The 16th-century artwork Madonna with Child, credited to the Italian Alessandro Turchi, was one of them. The picture was one of many taken from occupied Poland by a Nazi official who oversaw the plunder of art.
But now that it has been discovered in Japan and turned over to Polish officials during a ceremony in Tokyo this week, the painting is finally on its way home.
Poland has been successful in recovering 600 plundered items of art, but more than 66,000 alleged war losses have yet to be found.
Poland recently started a drive to get the 100,000 artworks and other cultural artifacts that are still missing from the German and Soviet occupations during World War Two. Germany is also being sued for $1.3 trillion in damages for the harm caused by the occupying Nazis.
As looted art’s descendants try to sell pieces without knowing their origin, experts predict that more art will be found over time.
It is believed that Madonna with Child was moved to Germany in 1940 while the Nazis were occupying Poland. Before murdering Jewish families, the Nazis frequently plundered their art.
The picture was listed among the 521 works of art in Nazi-occupied Poland that Kajetan Mühlmann had collated. Mühlmann was in charge of overseeing art theft.
The picture reappeared in the 1990s after being purchased at an auction in New York.
It was scheduled to be auctioned off in January of last year, but Polish authorities discovered the object before the sale could take place. The auction house and the painting’s owner agreed to restore it to Poland after it was established that it was the stolen work. On Wednesday, there was an official handing-over ceremony in Tokyo.
The reintroduction of works of art like Madonna with Child, according to Polish art historian Natalia Cetera, has helped the nation’s pride in its artistic legacy recover.
She claimed that thefts from Poland included works by Rembrandt and Raphael as well as well-known Polish classics.
Therefore, if this occurs and the artworks return to Polish collections, Ms. Cetera told the BBC, “you feel proud because it shows the importance of Polish collections that are sometimes forgotten.”
Because this is something we sought to reconstruct after the war and is a long process to be recognized again, it means we have some strong focus on remembering our legacy, our collections, and the strength we used to have in art.
The notion of cultural legacy “being seen as a common good” has shifted, according to Ms. Cetera, in recent years.
Art Recovery International’s founder, Christopher Marinello, has dedicated more than 30 years to locating missing works of art. He thinks that as looted art is passed down to subsequent generations, uninformed of their origins, more pieces may start to surface.
We’re talking about a generation ago, and when the owners pass away, these looted items are handed to their heirs, who may elect to sell them because they are unaware of the item’s past.
Theft of artwork has been reported by Polish authorities to Interpol and other public and private databases.
Many art historians are also conducting research on stolen items of art from Poland and discovering them, according to Mr. Marinello.
“More eyes are searching for the looted items as technology advances and auction houses start posting everything online.”
Image source: Polish Institute in Tokyo, Madonna with child
Mr. Marinello thinks that attitudes toward stolen works of art have changed with the “generational shift” that occurred after the painting was turned up to Polish authorities on Wednesday in a ceremony in Tokyo. A man in Chicago approached him about a piece he thought his grandfather had stolen from a German museum during World War Two, and he is currently working on that case.
They’ve owned it for a whole generation, and now that they realize they can’t sell it, they would prefer to return it than to deal with the situation further.
However, laws differ from nation to nation, and occasionally an item that has been stolen can only be recovered with the current owner’s cooperation.
Madonna and Child was discovered in Japan, which Mr. Marinello claims is “not a great country to recover stolen art from.”
Since you cannot rely on a lawsuit under Japanese law, he said, “it’s really up to the possessor in many cases to do the right thing… to understand that something was looted or stolen and that it should be returned.”
Ms. Cetera expressed delight in the successful return of Madonna with Child, but she expressed skepticism about whether younger generations will share her enthusiasm for returning stolen art to Poland.
“The question is if Gen Z and younger generations care about it; do they think it’s important? This may not be the case, based on what I’ve seen, she remarked.
She warned that digitized art collections might cause a decline in interest in the tangible form of art.
One day, perhaps, we won’t need to retrieve artwork because it will be stored in the Cloud and accessible from everywhere at any time, regardless of who owns it.
“This digitisation and technology that is coming might at some point suppress the need of retrieving physical artworks.”