Nazi loot

Search continues for missing Raphael painting

Stolen in 1945 from a Polish prince’s museum, it is now thought to be in Bavaria


The hunt is still on for the greatest work of art lost in the World War II, Raphael’s “Portrait of a young man” from Kraków’s Czartoryski Museum. Prince Adam Czartoryski told The Art Newspaper that he remains optimistic that the masterpiece will emerge. “Ever since I learned about the Raphael as a boy, I have been hopeful that it will turn up. There is no evidence to suggest it was destroyed,” he told The Art Newspaper. He admitted that there have already been several “cloak-and-dagger investigations” into the picture’s fate.

Polish experts are continuing the search for the missing masterpiece. Professor Wojciech Kowalski, who in 1991-94 served as Commissioner of Polish Cultural Heritage Abroad, has made the hunt a personal crusade. An expert on the legal issues of looted art, his own inquiries have convinced him that “the painting still exists”. The new Polish government, which took power after elections last September, is determined to renew the search and the Ministry of Culture has recently approached Professor Kowalski for assistance.

“Portrait of a young man”, dating from around 1515, is one of Raphael’s greatest works, and some scholars believe it to be a self-portrait. The picture was acquired by the Czartoryski family in 1800 and was later displayed in the family museum in Kraków. During the war the masterpiece had a chequered history: it was hidden in the cellar of a Czartoryski country house, looted by German troops, taken as booty to Berlin, and eventually returned to Kraków to adorn the apartment of Nazi governor Hans Frank in the Wavel Palace.

Mystery still surrounds the disappearance of the Raphael at the end of the war. With Soviet troops approaching Kraków in January 1945, Frank fled, initially to a base in Murau in Austria and shortly afterwards to Neuhaus in Bavaria. Although the Raphael could have been left behind in Kraków, the 72 x 56 cm panel was almost certainly taken by the fleeing Nazi governor.

According to two witnesses, “Portrait of a young man” was seen at Murau on 21 January 1945. Ten days later Frank left for Neuhaus, probably with the Raphael, and it was there that he was arrested on 4 May by American troops. Despite an intensive search for the painting, it was never found. Frank was tried as a war criminal at the Nuremberg tribunal and was later hanged.

Our inquiries suggest that three of Frank’s associates may have known of the fate of the Raphael. His aide-de-camp Helmuth Pfaffenroth was closely involved in moving paintings to Neuhaus, but he vanished at the end of the war. Wilhelm Ernst de Palesieux, a friend and employee of Frank, testified to American forces that he had seen the Raphael at Murau. In 1954 he was killed in a mysterious car crash, the day before he had arranged to discuss the circumstances of the picture’s disappearance with Count Stefan Zamoyski, who was married to a Czartoryski. Edward Kneisel, a picture restorer who worked for Frank, claimed in 1960 that he had seen the painting at Palesieux’s residence in Neuhaus in February 1945. Soon afterwards Kneisel retracted his statement, apparently under strong pressure from an unknown quarter.

Bernard Taper, a US Art Intelligence Officer in Germany after the war, followed up the fate of the Raphael in interviews with captured Nazis. Even after his work was completed, he has continued to pursue the story as a personal interest. He recently revealed that his own inquiries had suggested that Frank may well have stored the painting in a building in Neuhaus which was not thoroughly searched by American troops. The Raphael could therefore still be in Bavaria, possibly unidentified in an attic or cellar.

The recent emergence of two other Czartoryski treasures from other parts of the family collections has renewed hopes that the missing Raphael will emerge. At a Sotheby’s Old Master sale in New York on 30 January last year there was a painting which had once been at Goluchów Palace, another Czartoryski residence. This was Jan Mostaert’s “Portrait of a Lady, presumably Anne of Bretagne”, offered with an estimate of $70,000-90,000. In the Sotheby’s catalogue entry, earlier owners were given as the Czartoryski family and the New York dealer Knoedler. Prince Czartoryski blocked the auction and the fate of the painting is now under discussion with the American vendor.

The second case concerned an important silk carpet which was entered for a Christie’s sale in London on 11 October 1990, estimated at £150,000-200,000. Known as a Polonaise, it is Persian and dates from the early seventeenth century. The vendor was Swiss and Christie’s openly titled the carpet as “The Czartoryski Polonaise Rug”. Following publication of the Christie’s catalogue, Prince Czartoryski again intervened and the sale did not proceed. After years of legal negotiations, the carpet was finally returned to Poland last October and is now on display at the Czartoryski Museum. Interestingly, the Polonaise rug is said to have been acquired in Bavaria in 1945. The Kraków museum has now become a foundation, headed by Prince Czartoryski (The Art Newspaper, No.14, 1991, p.4). If the Raphael portrait does turn up, ownership would therefore be claimed by the foundation.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Where is this Raphael?'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 78 February 1998