WARSAW – A very precious and significant private art collection that includes a rare painting by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as works by Rembrandt and Renoir, will now be owned by the Polish government. A signed agreement with the family foundation that has administered the collection has been reached in principle.
It started with some ancient lineage of 17th century Poland. The Head of the Polish House of Czartoryski, descendants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was really the beginning of the story.
Piotr Glinski, the deputy prime minister and minister of culture who signed the agreement for the Republic of Poland, said that his main intention was to ensure that the artworks never leave Poland. Earlier, he had said that was a possibility as long as they belonged to the privately owned Princes Czartoryski Foundation. Also he believed that this would safeguard the repository in perpetuity and long term care of the collection. Glinski exclaimed, “Today in free Poland we have fulfilled the will of Princess Czartoryska that the collections of the Czartoryski princes … become not only the spiritual but the actual property of the nation.”
Glinski added that by accepting the government’s offer, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski fulfilled a longstanding family obligation.
Czartoryski, 77, wholeheartedly agreed. The President of the Princes Czartoryski Foundation said, “I am basically following in the footsteps of my ancestors, who always wanted to serve the Polish nation.”
The announcement only changes the status of the collection, which was set up more than 200 years ago by Princess Izabela Czartoryska. The artworks will remain where they are today. Most are housed and displayed in the National Museum in Kraków. The major exception is “Lady With an Ermine,” painted by Leonardo DaVinci which is on display at the Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków. This celebrated oil on wooden panel is a major tourist attraction.
The culture ministry’s legal effort reflects a broader goal by the right-wing Law and Justice Government. The Law and Justice party took power over a year ago. It has been striving to re-establish Polish heritage and history as a focus and source of national pride. Poland’s parliament allowed the ministry to set up a reserve fund to purchase “cultural items of special significance to the Polish heritage.”
The Czartoryski collection has been one of Europe’s most important private art assemblages. It contains 250,000 historic manuscripts and documents, some of which used to belong to Polish kings. It also has 86,000 museum artifacts that include 593 precious artworks, most notably DaVinci’s “Lady With an Ermine” (1496), Rembrandt’s “Landscape With the Good Samaritan” (1638) and sketches by Auguste Renoir and Albrecht Dürer. Included is armory art with extensive collections of Polish, Islamic and European arms and antiquity items. Besides the many paintings, which are a great record of history, there are many tapestries and embroidered surface art which were the ‘photos’ of ancient times past. In addition, it is an abundant Chopin repository which includes rare manuscripts, sheet music and letters.
Glinski acknowledged that the $105 million that the government paid for the collection is “way below the market price.” Most art experts agree the collection to be estimated at more than $2 billion. Glinski said the transaction can be viewed more as a “donation.”
The negotiations were not without controversy, however. The Czartoryski Foundation’s management board said it was not consulted about the sale, which was negotiated between Poland’s culture ministry and Adam Karol Czartoryski, a descendent of Princess Izabela Czartoryska, who founded the collection in 1802.
Czartoryski, the foundation’s head, said he was following his ancestors who “always worked for the Polish nation.” He further added, “I felt like making a donation and that’s my choice.”
After an announcement earlier this month that the ministry was in talks to buy the collection, the board of the Czartoryski foundation said that the move might be illegal. According to the foundation’s statute, the collection is “nontransferable and indivisible.” The board members recently resigned, after they were excluded from the talks.
Marian Wolski, a former board member, said that there was a risk of the collection’s eventual dispersal out of public control, but was against selling the collection. Jan Lubomirski-Lanckoronski, a relative of Mr. Czartoryski and member of a new board that was formed after the other board members resigned, said that the foundation’s statute was changed to allow for the collection to be sold.
This is an enduring art enterprise. During the war years, many objects from the collection were looted and never repatriated. Included in this group was Raphael’s masterpiece “Portrait of a Young Man” (1513-14). The list of losses includes about 800 works. The agreement signed at the Royal Castle in Warsaw not only gives Poland the rights to the current collection, but also transfers the rights to any future claims to works of art that may be retrieved.
In 1940 “Lady With an Ermine” actually hung in the Kraków offices of Hans Frank, the notorious SS death camp administrator and governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland.
“This is such an incredible thing, not just for our family, but for our country as well,” Lubomirski-Lanckoronski said. “All these artworks are an inseparable part of Poland’s history and I know that Aunt Izabela would be happy that they now belong to the Polish people.”
Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski is the only surviving child of Prince Jozef August and Princess Dolores of Borbon y Orleans. His younger brother, Ludwik, died in infancy. In 1977, Adam Karol married Nora Picciotto, with whom he had one daughter, Tamara Czartoryska. Tamara was born in 1978 and the couple divorced in 1986. In 2000 he married Josette Naime Calil.
The Polish-Spanish aristocrat was educated in England. He is the maternal (Bourbon) first cousin of King Juan Carlos I of Spain and lived for a time in Ireland. There he had been a successful professional race car driver and karate enthusiast. Prince Czartoryski was a passionate devotee of Hawaiian Kenpō grand master Ed Parker. Parker was a worldwide renowned dojo trainer of celebrities; most notable was Elvis Presley and John McSweeney. Besides karate, Czartoryski was also an avid international sportsman and supported conventional wrestling and judo. He headed up and administered numerous global sports federations.
Since 1974 he has been head trustee of the Polish Dzialynska Trust in London. The family has supported this educational trust in Norwich, England since 1899. The trust supports scholastic costs for Polish students both in the United Kingdom and in Poland.
The Czartoryski Museum was founded in 1796 by Princess Izabela Czartoryska to preserve Polish heritage and culture. Her motto was: “The Past to the Future.” The first objects in the so-called “Temple of Memory” were tapestries and treasured depictions commemorating the victory against the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
In 1798, Izabela’s son, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, travelled to Italy and acquired “The Lady with an Ermine” and many other master antiquities. However, Prince Adam Jerzy was condemned to death by the Russians after the 1830 insurrection. He established himself in Paris, and in 1843 bought The Hôtel Lambert which became the Living Museum of Poland. Here “The Lady with an Ermine” found a welcoming home. The Hôtel Lambert became the unofficial assembling point of the Polish expatriates, political, cultural and art devotees in France.
The painting was brought back to Kraków and added to the new collection in 1878 by Adam Karol Czartoryski’s great-grandfather, Prince Władysław.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Polish High Court returned control and ownership of the Czartoryski Art Museum and Library to Adam Karol Czartoryski.
At the death of his grandmother Princess Maria Ludwika Czartoryska in 1975, the Hôtel Lambert in Paris was sold by the heirs to Baron Guy de Rothschild. The hotel remains a popular tourist destination and dialog faction for Polish sophistication and the promotion of Polish culture. Chopin’s “La Polonaise” was composed expressly for the Polish costume ball held every year at the Hôtel Lambert. The watercolor masterpiece “Ball at the Hôtel Lambert in Paris” or sometimes known as “Chopin’s Polonaise” (1859) by Teofil Kwiatkowski is in the collection of the National Museum in Poznań, Poland.
In 1991 Adam Karol Czartoryski was recognized by the Republic of Poland for his philanthropy and was awarded with the Commander’s Cross with Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta.
Jacek Adamski contributed to this story from Warsaw