Wallpaper Flare
Wallpaper Flare

Poland’s Empty Frames campaign returns Nazi-looted artwork

In September 2022, Poland launched Empty Frames,  a campaign to commemorate the half a million objects of art and culture that were lost or destroyed by the Nazis and the Soviets during World War Two. Poland has successfully returned almost 600 pieces of national cultural heritage. The Madonna and Child is the most recent painting, estimated to be brought to Germany around 1940.

The Madonna with Child by Alessandro Turchi, an Italian artist from the 16th century, was recently identified at a Japanese auction. The Nazi officer Kajetan Mühlmann included it in his list of 521 Polish artworks to be looted. It was believed the painting went missing after World War II, but it turned up in New York in the 1990s. After being discovered by Polish officials in January, Madonna with Child was returned to Poland by its owner and auction firm.

At a ceremony in Tokyo last week, Poland’s minister of culture, Piotr Gliski, received the artwork and said, “It was still a pandemic era, so interactions were not easy. Furthermore, cultural and historical differences were an obstacle. Although Japan had a problematic history as an occupier, Gliski noted that “All legal and cultural-historical arguments were accepted by the Japanese side.” Before relocating to the soon-to-be-completed Museum of the Princes Lubomirski, the artwork will likely be on show in the regional museum in Przeworsk; the city of its former home.

When art is recovered it reminds our strong focus on remembering our heritage, our collections, and the strength we used to have in art

This triumph for Polish history follows two victories in January when Spain restored two paintings to their original destination. From the studio of Flemish master Dieric Bouts, a diptych of the Virgin Mary and Christ form a single work and was most likely stolen during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The two pieces were missing until purchase in 1973 and donated for public viewing in 1994 by a private collector. After a long legal process, Mater Dolorosa (Mother of Sorrows) and Ecce Homo were transferred by the Museum of Pontevedra back to their rightful home.

The Empty Frames project reminds both the Polish people and visitors directly of wartime losses by literally displaying empty artwork frames. They are both “a symbol of lost heritage but also a sign of hope for the return of artwork that was seized, illegally exported and remaining abroad”. Appearing in over 12 museums, Polish authorities hope to reunite the frames with their original contents and emphasise the losses they incurred from both the Western and Eastern attacks.

In the words of Polish art historian Natalia Cetera, when art is recovered “it means we have strong focus on remembering our heritage, our collections, and the strength we used to have in art,” which is something “we tried to rebuild after the war and this is a long process to be recognised again.”

In an interview with The BBC, Art Recovery International founder Christopher Marinello predicted that looted artwork will become increasingly common in the years ahead. “We’re talking about a generation ago now,” he says. “These looted objects are being left to heirs when the possessors pass away, and the children don’t necessarily know the history and they decide to sell it.” Marinello also credits “the great number of art historians out there who are doing research of looted artworks from Poland” and the web presence of auction houses for the ongoing successes in repatriation.

Many masterpieces have still not been returned to Poland, despite the fact that the country is reclaiming an increasing number of paintings and other priceless artworks. Portrait of a Young Man is one of Rafael’s paintings that has gone missing. Poland has joined a global initiative to recover stolen cultural artifacts and return them to their rightful owners, which includes nations like India. Mexico, Greece, and many more



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