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Poland Gets a da Vinci at a Big Discount

The world famous Princes Czartoryski Foundation was recently acquired by the Polish government for a fraction of its value

(Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Late last week, the nation of Poland bought a Leonardo da Vinci painting at a truly bargain basement price. For $105 million, the state acquired “Lady With an Ermine” as well as a painting by Rembrandt, manuscripts by Chopin, a chair from William Shakespeare’s house along with 86,000 artifacts and 250,000 books and manuscripts, reports the BBC. The sale comes from the Princess Czartoryski Foundation, which owned the massive art collection, begun in 1802 by Polish aristocrat Princess Izabela Czartoryska.

According to Lidia Kelly at Reuters, Poland had to pass a special budget amendment to afford the artworks, but it was worth it—it’s estimated the collection is valued at $2.4 billion. But the transaction isn’t without controversy. Kelly reports that the entire board of the Foundation resigned during the negotiations because the collection’s fair market value was not properly assessed, which is a violation of the Foundation’s bylaws. The board also worried that after the sale to the state, the collection could be broken up and sold off to other collectors. A new board was appointed that changed the bylaws to allow the collection to be sold.

In fact, reports Joanna Berendt at The New York Times, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, an heir of Princess Izabela and head of the foundation considers the sale at such a low price a donation. Berendt reports that the nationalist, right-wing Law and Justice Party, which came to power in Poland a year ago, is invested in using Polish heritage and history to boost national identity and pride. The party, founded in 2001, places an emphasis on national culture, patriotism, the Polish language and the nation’s Christian history. 

Prince Czartoryski, 76, the president of the Foundation, tells Berendt that the sale to the state is in line with those goals. “Everyone should consider conscientiously whether they do enough for their fatherland,” he says, adding that he was “basically following in the footsteps of my ancestors, who always wanted to serve the Polish nation.”

The sale does not change the status of most of the collection, since the majority of the artwork it contains is already housed at the National Museum in Krakow. But the sale means that the collection pieces become permanent holdings of the museum. “This ensures the right of the Polish nation to the collection,” Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski tells Kelly. “There is a difference between having something on deposit and being its owner.”  

“Lady With An Ermine,” one of only four portraits by da Vinci depicting a woman, is alone insured for almost $330 million, reports Berendt. The sale also gives the state the rights to 800 works looted from the collection by during the war years that have never been recovered. Among those missing pieces is Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man.” Though Prince Augustyn Czartoryski was able to hide much of the collection's artwork in 1939, it was eventually discovered by the Gestapo. The Raphael painting, along with many others, were sent to Germany to become part of Hitler’s personal art collection.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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