What would you do with the “spoils of war?”

RESIZE_The Polish Mission - Gloria Artis Award Ceremony - ignited Photography-202Our Polish Mission team has had the pleasure of being introduced to Mr. Bob Wittmann several months ago, and secured him to give a presentation at the Gloria Artis Award Dinner on October 29, 2015 in Orchard Lake, Mich. As a father of a grad from St. Mary’s Preparatory, Mr. Wittmann approached us to ask if we could further participate in his mission.  Mr. Wittmann’s story awoke in us a need to pursue the important task of helping restore as much stolen art as possible to its original owners. While “Portrait of a Young Man” is just one of the countless priceless art object stolen from Poland during World War II, people like Mr. Wittmann are champions of the world of culture, as they right past wrongs and act as modern-day art heroes.

Robert Wittmann’s story starts with a hunger for information. Son of John Wittmann, a serviceman in World War II with the 42nd Rainbow Infantry, Wittmann did not grow up knowing much about his father.  John Wittmann passed away in 1971 when Wittmann was 12 years old. As often happens, after Wittmann matured into adulthood, married and had his own family, he began to reflect on his family history and wonder about his father’s experience during the war.

The journey started in 2009 when Wittmann, deep into his research about his father’s service during the war, stumbled upon a number of slides that had likely not been seen since the 1950s. Two of the images were from 1946 and pictured Wittmann’s father with his “spoils of war,” among which was a bust of Hitler and a unique oil painting hanging on the wall.9999_1

In further study of the images, as well as the ones accompanying, Wittmann discovered that the painting was marked with a “National Museum in Warsaw” label and an inventory number. Surprised, at this finding, he researched the painting online and discovered that it was very likely that this painting had been looted from the National Museum after the Warsaw Uprising.

He learned that the Rainbow Division, of which his father was a part, ended service in the war near Fischhorn Castle in Austria.  During the war, Herman Goring, a notorious and ruthless Nazi art collector, lived and hoarded his art and also where he surrendered in May of 1945.  Wittmann learned that it was likely that the contents of the National Museum in Warsaw had been relocated after it was looted. His father likely “liberated” the painting in August 1945, an unfortunate practice that was common at the time, and in turn, at many times through history after periods of war.

Wittmann, unsure of where to continue his search to learn more about the mysterious oil painting, contacted the Embassy of the Republic of Poland to the United States in Washington D.C. and they forwarded the information about his discovery to the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in Krakow. Wittmann wrote to the Ministry that Portrait of a Young Man” painted in 1728 by Krzysztof Lubieniecki, had survived the war, and its last known location was Columbus, Ohio, where it had stayed from 1946 to 1971. He also shared with him that his parents divorced in the 1960s and that Wittmann’s stepmother had received all of his father’s possessions upon his death in 1971; the current location of the painting was a mystery.

The Ministry asked Wittmann to reach out and see if he could discover more information about the painting and its current location. He contacted his stepmother and she shared that the painting had been sold in the 1980s to a man in Ohio with the last name “Bobb.”  After Wittmann passed along this information, he heard once or twice from Homeland Security, and then silence for a long while.9999_2

Finally, on September 29, 2015, Wittmann received an email from the Ministry that the painting had been recovered with the help of the FBI.  The rededication of the painting was scheduled for October 8 at the National Museum in Warsaw.  The Ministry invited Wittmann and his wife to the unveiling of the painting.9999_8

After 70 years, “Portrait of a Young Man,” was revealed to those gathered at the National Museum to the museum community and members of the press.  Wittmann participated in a press conference with the Minister of Culture, the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Poland, the Director of the National Museum and the most recent owner of exquisite Baroque painting, John Bobb.  Wittmann praised the participation of John and Janus Bobb who “yielded the painting, without question,” after they were informed of the painting’s history.  Wittmann counts himself lucky to have been able to help, in his small way, he says, to the rededication of the painting and the return to its rightful home.

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Wittmann now offers a thoughtful challenge to art collectors, museums, servicemen from World War II and their surviving families: “[Please] scrutinize and vet your holdings. When there is an obvious theft, as in this case, follow the example set by John and Janis Bobb.”

 

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If you have any information on a painting that might have been “liberated” from Europe during World War II, please email mchumiecki@orchardlakeschools.com or call (248) 683-0412.