A painting by the Symbolist artist Jacek Malczewski was the subject of a legal standoff at a Warsaw auction house shortly before a major auction earlier this week. Armed police officers, as well as staff from the country’s National Gallery, went to seize the artwork after prosecutors said the painting may have been involved in a crime. However, they left the DESA Unicum auction house empty-handed for the second time.
The 1908 oil painting, titled Rzeczywistość (Reality), was expected to sell between PLN 14 and PLN 22 million ($3.1 million to $4.9 million USD), which would make it the most valuable artwork ever sold in the country. However, Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage had questions about its provenance and legal status.
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The painting had not been in the public view for almost 100 years after an exhibition in Lviv, Ukraine in 1926.
In February, the Culture Ministry asked DESA Unicum for more information. The auction house said the Malczewski was not stolen and belonged to a Polish-German family prior to the Second World War, according to the First News, an online English-language site owned by the Polish Press Agency.
After the Culture Ministry asked DESA for more information, the agency filed a notice with law enforcement agencies in March, stating on its website: “Considering the existence of serious premises justifying the suspicion that the painting was an object of a crime, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage filed a relevant notice to law enforcement agencies as early as 25 March 2022 (i.e. several months before the painting was put up for sale by the DESA Unicum Auction House).”
Despite this filing, DESA still planned to go ahead with its sale of the painting.
The first time the Polish police tried to remove the painting was on November 21. Auction house staff said that the officers’ packaging materials were insufficient and the police left.
A week later, when the police returned with National Museum workers to retrieve the artwork, DESA staff said the box was the wrong size and could damage it as a result. National Museum staff, who are literally in the business of dealing with major artworks, had prepared the box for the painting and its frame, but then DESA argued the latter was not subject to seizure by the authorities.
Another issue was insurance. “Despite our request, we have not received confirmation that the painting is insured either in transit or in storage,” DESA Unicum president Juliusz Windorbski told the First News.
As a result, the painting was not removed and DESA rehung it.
The current record holder for the most expensive painting sold in Poland is Andrzej Wróblewski’s Two Married Women. It was sold at auction at the end of last year for PLN 13.44 million ($3 million USD).