Restitution in Poland: Count recovers Leonardo’s “Lady with the Ermine” from the Communists and donates it to a foundation

Czartoryski Museum and Library converted into foundation with advice from London art dealer, Andrew Ciechanowiecki


A great deal has been said and written over the past two years about East European grandees being given back their property, but reality lags behind the talk. In Poland, not a single country house has been returned to its rightful owner.

Hungary and Czechoslovakia suffered relatively little war-damage, and Communism was imposed after hostilities had ceased and normal life had resumed. In Poland, Communism trundled in on the back of a tank, with a provisional government shooting from the hip with edicts and expropriations. Country houses and town palaces were in varying stages of destruction. Their contents had mostly been removed to Germany. Their masters were either dead or absent—in a concentration camp, in the Polish army in the West or else in the underground army. They were forbidden by law to return to within thirty kilometres of their estates, and their houses were turned into the offices of state farms, rest homes for party bosses or factory workers, schools, mad-houses, orphanages or just left to crumble. Those contents that remained were either plundered by the aparatchiks of the new regime or dumped in some local museum. To reverse this process at a stroke would be impossible, and every compromise suggested so far has foundered in a fearful bog of legal and financial complications. The issue of “reprivatisation”, as it is quaintly termed, is also politically sensitive, and the Polish Sejm has been throwing it back and forth across the Chamber like a hot potato. Meanwhile the owners or their descendants champ impatiently to recover and lovingly restore what is left of the family heritage.

The picture is only a little brighter when it comes to objects, thanks to the intelligence of those in the museum world who support the ambitious and often altruistic plans of the owners. Count Tarnowski has managed to recover ownership of pictures (the tail-end of the collection that once contained both the Frick’s “Polish Rider” and the Met’s “Perseus” by Canova) appropriated by the National Museum in Warsaw in 1945, and intends to display them at his old country house of Dzikow. Anna Wolska, heiress to the palace of Wilanow outside Warsaw, and the Potocki and Branicki collections in it, has offered to set it up as a public institution. Count Edward Raczynski, the distinguished centenarian ex-President of Poland in exile living in London, has created a foundation whose aim is to recover as much of his property as possible and return it to his country house of Rogalin outside Poznan. The director of the National Museum in Poznan, Professor Konstanty Kalinowski, has agreed to return all his pictures and furniture held by the museum. Kalinowski is equally accommodating with Prince Adam Czartoryski, who has set up a foundation to retsore to glory the castle of Goluchow.

But all these agreements remain little more than pious hopes, even when, as in the case of Anna Wolska, President Walesa himself attempted to translate them into action. The Zamoyski family’s attempts to reactivate a foundation they set up in the 1920s at Kornik, a Scottish-baronial monstrosity housing a priceless library of early illuminated manuscripts and incunabula, are being thwarted by the Polish Academy of Learning, which swallowed it up in 1945. Prince Jan Lubomirski, who managed to buy his castle of Kruszyna back from the local council for a symbolic zloty (they refused Barbara Johnson’s offer of millions in a fine gesture of patriarchal loyalty), cannot get the Lodz Museum to return the set of family portraits removed from it, even though none of them has ever been exhibited since being confiscated. Czartoryski’s Goluchow is a good example of the problems facing the altriustic grandee. The castle and grounds, which include the greatest arboretum in Poland, at present belong to the colossal state forestry authority, while the collections have been dispersed not only to Poznan, but also to Warsaw, whose National Museum is sitting on the remains of the unique collection of Etruscan and Greek vases (some are in Moscow, while others were looted by the Germans, along with all the Limoges enamels, some of which regularly turn up in Western collections).

But Prince Adam has a certain amount of clout, as he has recently brought off a resounding coup and made a grand gesture. In September 1991 he managed to recover possession of the Czartoryski Museum and Library in Krakow, lock, stock and barrel. The museum, set up in the 1780s by his great-great-great-grandmother Izabela, was the first didactically historical museum in Europe (both the famous “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo that starred in the National Gallery of Washington’s recent “Circa 1492” exhibition and the remarkable Rembrandt landscape were collected for their historical associations rather than their artistic merit). Prince Adam promptly donated the entire museum to a foundation which he set up for the purpose, to which he also ceded all his rights to his pre-war estates and property. How much of these the foundation will manage to recover is an open question, but at least the collection is now safe (there have been several attempts in the past to remove its best paintings to other museums). It is also now an independent body, and can begin to look for new ways to finance itself and improve its amenities. It is desperately looking for advice, help or just moral support from museums and institutions in the west. A major part in setting up the Czartoryski Foundation, and in most of the other similar attempts, has been played by an eminence grise familiar to Western art circles, namely the London art dealer Andrew Ciechanowiecki. He himself made history when, in 1984, he donated over 1,200 pictures and objects to a foundation he established in Warsaw—the first such institution since the war.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Polish Count recovers Leonardo’s “Lady with the Ermine” from the Communists and donates it to a foundation'