For the past 70 years Poland has tried to track down looted art that Nazi Germany stole from Jewish owners or Polish museums during World War II. More than 7,000 paintings are still missing. One of them has now returned to Poland – thanks to two US citizens.
Warsaw (dpa) – John Bobb loves art, above all the paintings of Dutch baroque artists. But now he has taken one picture from his collection to its old home in Poland.
“It has been on my dining room wall, together with maybe 20 other paintings,” the 74-year-old says.
For more than 20 years the portrait of a young man with rosy cheeks and a silver wig witnessed family meetings and Thanksgiving dinners in Bobb’s home in Westerville, Ohio.
Bobb, who studied art at the Sorbonne university before taking over the family food company, had always assumed a Prussian or Polish artist had painted the portrait.
“There was always a problem with provenance,” Bobb says. A few weeks ago he received a call from the FBI. “Now that got my attention!” he says.
From the FBI he learned that the signature of the artist did not begin with a “K” as he had thought, but with an “L.” The letter stood for Krzysztof Lubieniecki, a Polish artist who lived 1659-1729.
Until 1944, the painting was part of the collection of the Polish National Museum in Warsaw. For several years the director had hidden it successfully from German occupation forces. But after the Warsaw Uprising it was discovered and taken to Germany.
“I really did not have to think about it,” Bobb says. “Once I knew where the painting came from there was no question that I would give it back. I had it for 25 years, I can live without it.”
Malgorzata Omilanowska, Poland’s Minister of Culture, called Bobb’s decision a gesture of “honour and decency” when the painting returned to its old home in the Warsaw museum on Thursday.
“Without this good will, the chances for a return of the painting would have been very limited,” she said. After all, Bobb had obtained legal ownership of the painting.
But how did Lubieniecki’s portrait get the United States, and how could the FBI track it down after such a long time?
This is where Rob Wittmann comes in, another Ohio native who was curious about his family’s past.
Wittmann, who now lives in Michigan, discovered an old photo of his father John, who had died when Wittmann was only 12 years old.
In the picture the older Wittmann is in uniform. With a broad smile he points a Mauser pistol at the temple of a bust of Adolf Hitler and a dagger at the dictator’s throat. In the background of the room is a painting of a young man with a silver wig.
“That painting had been part of our family household,” Wittmann says. “When I was a child I thought it was rather ugly.”
But Wittmann had not grown up with the picture. His parents got divorced in the 1960s, the father remarried and his second wife later sold the painting.
The 57-year-old engineer, whose moustache and short grey hair seem to bristle with energy, did not let the matter of the painting rest when he came across another photo.
It featured the back of the painting, clearly showing a label with an inventory number and the words “Muzeum narodowe w Warszawie,” which is Polish for the National Museum in Warsaw.
From old letters from his father, Wittmann learned that the former member of the 42nd infantry division – the so-called Rainbow Division whose members had liberated the Dachau concentration camp – had been stationed in Fischhorn castle in Austria.
The castle was one of the places where the Nazis kept a big collection of looted art in storage.
“So I wondered whether this was a case of looted art,” Wittman says. He contacted the Polish embassy in Washington, asking to pass on the information to the Ministry of Culture. The Polish authorities involved the FBI in the search.
“It was wrong of my father to take this painting, although unfortunately it was all too common,” Wittmann says. “Now, more than 70 years later that wrong has been corrected.”
He also has written a letter to his father’s old division, hoping that more “spoils of war” might be checked.
“I would like to challenge all servicemen from World War II, their survivors, museums and private collectors to scrutinize and vet your holdings,” Wittmann says. “When there is an obvious theft, as in this case, follow the example of the Bobbs and return the item to the original owners.”