Works of art lost in the Second World War – if one were to look at them beyond matter to stop evaluating them solely in aesthetical categories – remain a testament to extinction and shortage that they left behind. Following Aby Warburg’s thought, it might be said that every lost piece of art is “a symbol representing visual record of original trauma, retaining memory of experience it originates from”. A devastated, stolen or lost piece of art is marked with a tragic history of its owners, collections and places it was previously connected to. Searching for lost pieces of art and recovering (restitution) of the found ones inextricably leads to reopening old wounds in collective memory (a word used in this context in Polish is tracić – in Proto-Slavic tratiti – meant rub, smudge). Or, in other words, with perpetual extraction of traumatic war experience from the magma of oblivion. It is an impossible task to describe in a single short article all collections, that were dispersed, plundered or destroyed during the war. We are talking about the heritage of entire Europe’s generations. Out of necessity, this subject will be treated adumbratively and fragmentarily. Reconstruction of pieces of art wounded by war and their restoration to the state from before the Second World War is an impossible endeavour. We may, however, restore the memory of them.

Fine Arts Collection of Zachęta Society in Warsaw

Watercolour painting The field of Buckwheat (Polish title: Gryka) by Stanisław Masłowski from 1924 used to be a property of Fine Arts Society of Zachęta in Warsaw. In the autumn of 1939, along with other pieces from the Society collection, it was secured in a chest placed in building’s cellar and in 1942 it eventually became part of the National Museum in Warsaw. It was most likely relocated to one of German depots in Lower Silesia after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising. That was where it was found as part of the reclamation campaign after the war. In August 1945, The field of Buckwheat returned to the National Museum in Warsaw. On the back of the painting, a white and blue sticker could still be found, with a number 2197 Rew. that later became its museum inventory number. Unfortunately, soon afterwards it disappeared again. Together with other items, it was lent as a temporary interior decoration of the Polish-Soviet Friendship Society headquarters and did not return to the museum then. After many years, in May, 2020, the watercolour painting was auctioned in one of Warsaw’s auction houses. It was recognised by the Division for Looted Arts workers operating within Department of Cultural Heritage Abroad and Wartime Loses, Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport, monitoring art market daily. As a result of taken actions, The field of Buckwheat, in agreement with its owner, returned to the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.

This watercolour painting history is an instance of many difficult ones that pieces of art lost from pre-war collection of Zachęta Fine Arts Society in Warsaw experienced. The society was established in 1860 to support and popularise national art in times of the Partition as well as to help Polish artists. An important agenda of the Society was to create Polish art collection. Its very first acquisition was the painting Death of Barbara Radziwiłłówna (Polish title: Śmierć Barbary Radziwiłłówny) by Józef Simmler. Thanks to baron Edward Rastawiecki and count Aleksander Przeździecki, members of the society who organised widespread fundraising, the collection had begun. The money raised were then used for buying the very painting. The collection was growing gradually, mainly due to help of generous contributors’ and collectors’ donations, and the Society was becoming a museum institution with its own headquarters since 1900. After Poland regained independence, it became one of the most vigorously working institution that promoted Polish art. Annual Exhibition Rooms where works of art belonging to most significant as well as less known Polish artists were shown. Pre-war Zachęta collection included works of names such as: Jan Matejko, January Suchodolski, Józef Chełmońśki, Aleksander Gierymski, Jacek Malczewski, Alfons Karpiński, Leon Wyczółkowski, Zofia Stryjeńska, Maria Łubieńska, Jan Ciągliński, Józef Mehoffer and many others. Before the outbreak of the Second World War the collection had as many as 900 items. During the war, as noted by Roman Olkowski in a monograph Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie (1860-1940, 1948), 317 pieces of art were lost. Those that survived, were incorporated to the National Museum in Warsaw collection.

[photo 1 a and b- Gryka, photo 2 –Bodiaki]

Jacob Kabrun’s Collection

Johann Saenredam’s print Portrait of the painter Johanna von Aachen by Pieter Isaacsz, retrieved in 2020, comes from Jacob Kabrun’s collection that constitutes the most valuable backbone of the National Museum in Gdańsk which is a continuator of pre-war City Museum in Gdańsk (Stadtmuseum Danzig). After the Second World War, Saendredam’s paint was deemed lost. Any trace of it had disappeared until December 2018, when the department of culture was informed about it being the lot on the auction in Bassenge auction house in Berlin. The identification mark here was an incused stamp characteristic for Kabrun’s collection.

The collection of Jacob Kabrun (1759-1814), a merchant, collector and bibliophile from Gdańsk, consisted of 8800 prints and drawings. After collector’s death in 1814, according to his will, it was donated to his hometown. In years 1833-1872 an effort was made to start compiling drawings and prints. To mark the works of the collection, a seal matrix was used – the so called dry stamp. In the composition field, most often in its central part, a round sign of 15 mm in diameter was to be found, with twelve five-pointed stars in the rim and a KG (Kabrun’sche Galerie) interlocking monogram in the middle. In a close vicinity of the seal there was a number in italics, characteristic of nineteen century calligraphy writing. These are unique features of works from Kabrun’s collection that are significant for their identification.

After the attack on Poland in 1939, Gdańsk was incorporated as part of the Reich and became a capital of Reichsgau Danzig-Westpreussen [an area consisting of annexed territory of the Free City of Danzig, the Greater Pomeranian Voivodship and West Prussia – translator’s note]. The Curator of Museum Collection of West Prussia office was given to Willie Drost. The graphics from Kabrun’s collection remained in the City Museum throughout the Second World War period. However the defeat at Stalingrad and the breaking of the Eastern Front forced Gdańsk authorities to evacuate the collection. In May, 1943, among others, 60 crates with graphics were moved to Przywidz (Mariensee) depot. However, in the autumn of 1944, the decision was made to evacuate museum objects further into the territory of Germany. They were relocated to Thuringia which was initially taken by American forces and at the beginning of July 1945 was relinquished for the Red Army. Pieces of art from that area became war trophies to the Soviet Union from which, due to reclamation in 1956, 4595 works in total were brought back to Gdańsk. There were 50 paintings, 397 drawings and 1543 prints from Jacob Kabrun’s collection among them. This rather small part of the entire collection is now kept in National Museum in Gdańsk.

[photo 3 – Johanna Saenredam’s print, photo 4 – a war trophy from Kabrun’s collection]

Ethnographic collection from Łódź

The collection of over 1300 non-European ethnographic items from the old Ethnographic City Museum in Łódź (now Archaeological and Ethnographic Museum) was scattered and partially destroyed due to the Second World War. At the beginning of Nazi occupation, the management of the museum was assumed by German archaeologist dr Walter Frenzel who tried to create the Eastern Museum (Ost Raum Museum) and focused on obtaining exhibits from all over Eastern Europe and North Asia. He proposed an exchange of museum pieces to Fritz Krauze, the Museum of Ethnology in Liepzig director (Städtisches Museum für Völkerkunde; Grassi Museum of Ethnology). In September 1940, ethnographica were packed inside crates and taken to Liepzig. Walter Frenzel’s successor, dr Walter Grünberg, resigned from his initial idea of exhibits exchange and assured their selling in 1942. The collection was divided and placed, among others, in the University of Göttingen and to Grassi Museum of Ethnology in Liepzig.
Thanks to efforts of prof. Konrad Jażdżewski, director of Archaeological and Ethnographical Museum in Łódź in years 1956-1986, Grassi Museum in Liepzig returned 306 items from the collection in 1967. There had been no information about the remaining ones until Łódź ethnographica from Göttingen were published on in 2012. The ministry of culture began attempts to compile full object documentation which, due to their number, was an extremely daunting and time-consuming task. A restitution motion submitted in 2015 was decided in favour by the University of Göttingen authorities and in the following year over 350 African and South American exhibits returned to the museum in Łódź. In 2017, subsequent 124 objects from the collection were identified in Grassi Museum of Ethnology in Liepzig. These museum pieces were regained by the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport in 2018.

It is worth mentioning, that Łódź ethnographical collection was being created in stages in the thirties of the 21st century due to initiative of Jan Manugiewicz, then City Museum of Ethnography director. The objects were sourced from Maritime and Colonial League members as well as Polish travellers and researchers of Africa and South America. The core of the collection consisted of two main sets of objects – African and American. The museum’s South American exhibits were the largest collection of this kind during interwar period in Poland.

[photo 5 – a photograph of the collection, photo 6 – retrieved object]

Photo of the Archaeological and Ethnographical Museum in Łódź archive, Joanna Borucka-Piech

Lost – wanted

Polish museologists, archivist, librarians and art historians started keeping the record of losings in collections, archives and bibliotheca in as early as 1939. The materials they compiled went to London where Office for the Revindication of Cultural Losses of the Ministry of Congress Works in London was operating. The collected documentation was published in 1944 in London in a form of bilingual paper entitled Cultural Losses of Poland. Index of Polish cultural losses during the German occupation 1939–1943 / Straty kultury polskiej. Katalog strat kultury polskiej pod okupacją niemiecką 1939–1944, edited by Karol Estreicher. The index included objects lost from public and private collections but also sacred items belonging to churches and religious associations. That was a starting point for efforts in documentation and searching undertaken after the war by Polish Revindication and War Reparations Bureau that was established within the Ministry of Culture and Art in Warsaw structures.

Post-war bureau actively worked in two primary fields – war losses of cultural significance documentation and field search management (both in Poland and abroad), for instance as part of Polish revindication missions in occupied zones in Germany or Austria. With the Revindication and War Reparations Bureau liquidation in 1951, the problem of war losses became somewhat suspended. It came into existence once more in 1991 along with the appointment of Government Plenipotentiary for Polish National Heritage Abroad and establishing his Bureau in the Ministry of Culture and Art. The works on documentation and registering Polish war losses have begun anew. The collected information enabled a database of war losses establishment in 1992, managed by the Department of Culture.

The contemporary documentation and search works are continued in the Ministry of Culture by the Division For Looted Art. The database of war losses – consisting of over 60 thousand records – is constantly updated. On the basis of provenance research that is organised, among others, within “Study on Polish war losses” programme, new entries of cultural loses from the pre-war collection are being made. It is worth noting that the database does not describe the quantitative state of war losses as they are several times higher than the number of registered pieces, though it roughly presents the current state of knowledge about losses in Polish collections. The database resources were partly made available in the internet as a catalogue of photographs at ( site. The ongoing gathering of documentation constitutes the foundation for continuous search as well as restitution of found objects.

[lost art logotype]


Borucka-Piech J., Utracone – Odzyskane. Katalog zbiorów odzyskanych z Getyngi, Łódź 2017.

Chodyński A. R., Kolekcjonarzy i kolekcje w Gdańsku XVI-XIX wieku (do 1872 roku). Inventarium et taxam dzieł sztuki, „Rocznik Historii Sztuki” 2002, t. XXVII, s. 171-209.

Estreicher K., Straty kultury polskiej pod okupacją niemiecką 1939–1944: wraz z oryginalnymi dokumentami grabieży / Cultural losses od Poland during the German occupation 1939–1944: with original documents od the looting, Kraków 2003.

Majewski T., Obraz, trauma, desublimacja: o reprezentacji ikonicznej doświadczenia granicznego, [w:] Nowoczesność jako doświadczenie, R. Nycz, A. Zeidler-Janiszewska (red.), Kraków 2006, s. 165-180.

Olkowski R., Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie (1860–1940, 1948), Warszawa 2020.

Straty kultury polskiej. Katalog strat kultury polskiej pod okupacją niemiecką 1939–1944 / Curtural Losses of Poland. Index of Polish cultural losses during the German occupation 1939–1943, K. Estreicher (red.), Londyn 1944.

Warburg A., Atlas obrazów Mnemosyne, tłum. P. Brożyński i M. Jędrzejczyk, Warszawa 2015.

Elżbieta Przyłuska
The Division for Looted Art
Department of Cultural Heritage Abroad and Wartime Loses
Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport