A prized Polish painting stolen by Nazi Germany’s head of occupied Poland Hans Frank has been returned to the National Museum in Kraków after 80 years – after being found in Warsaw.
The watercolour painting ‘Montmartre Cemetery in Paris’ by Julian Fałat from 1893, one of over 63,000 artworks that features on the culture ministry’s list of art lost from Polish collections during WWII, was found hiding in plain sight in the collection of the gallery’s sister institution, the National Museum in Warsaw.
The watercolour landscape had been taken from the museum in Kraków to decorate the offices of the General Governor Hans Frank on 25 June 1940.
It was not seen again after the war and it was added to the list of Polish wartime art losses.
A few years ago, however, senior curator from the Kraków gallery Janina Skorupska-Szarlej discovered that the painting had been in Poland all the time when she tracked it down to the National Museum in Warsaw on the internet.“I came across information on the Internet that this work is in the Warsaw collection. I could not believe it,” she said.
“Until 1939, the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris was in our museum. Unfortunately, after entering Krakow, the Germans had an excellent idea of what the work was and where it was,” she added.
She explained that director of the museum in Krakow during the war, Feliks Kopera, had insisted that the Germans confirm in writing that they were taking the piece.
“This document was a confirmation that it belonged to our collection. After the war the painting disappeared. The National Museum in Warsaw bought it in good faith,” she said.
After the war, the painting surfaced in Berlin, from where it was taken to Leningrad by a Red Army trophy-hunting brigade.
After many years, it ended up in private hands and was eventually sold to the National Museum in Warsaw.
It remained in its inventory until recently without anyone joining the dots to work out that colleagues down the road in Kraków considered it a war loss.
At Thursday’s presentation of the work, the director of the National Museum in Kraków Andrzej Szczerski said, “Montmartre Cemetery in Paris is a picture of an exceptional class.
“It presents an unusual theme in Fałata’s oeuvre: an urban landscape, with a splendid contrast between the modern city and the memorial site located in its centre.”
“We are proud and happy that thanks to the work of our Inventory Department it has been possible to recover the work in such good condition,” he added.
The painting by Fałat, one of Poland’s greatest watercolourists, was first exhibited in the Cracow Society of the Friends of Fine Arts in 1896.
It came into the possession of the National Museum in the 1920s when the well-known collector Erazm Barącz, the head of the Wieliczka Salt Mines, donated it to the National Museum collection.
Skorupska-Szarlej said: “When he retired, he decided to donate everything in his apartment to the National Museum. At that time, a notarial agreement was signed between the donor and the Krakow City Council, under which the whole of his collection was to form a separate branch of the museum. There were more than 400 items, including this painting.”
The Erasmus Barącz branch of the museum was opened in 1923 in the tenement house at 51 Karmelicka street. In the catalogue published at that time, item 38 is described as “Fałat Julian. Mont Martre watercolour”.
The painting is the only known landscape by Fałat with a view of Paris. The artist painted it in 1893 and although he liked to return to the same subjects, he never repeated this one and did not create any copies.
The watercolour will soon be examined in the museum’s conservation workshop, and after a few months of work will be displayed in the Nineteenth Century Gallery of Polish Art in the Cloth Hall on Kraków’s market square.