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Auction House Standoff In Poland

December 5, 2022
Rzeczywistość (or Reality in English) by the Polish symbolist Jacek Malczewski, which features closeups of several people, some in costumes

Rzeczywistość (Reality) by Jacek Malczewski

The 1908 painting Rzeczywistość (or Reality in English) by the Polish symbolist Jacek Malczewski has not been exhibited for nearly a century. But now, DESA Unicum in Warsaw will auction it off on December 8th, with specialists predicting it to sell for anywhere between 14 and 22 million Polish złoty (or about $3.1 to $4.9 million). It would be the most valuable work of art ever sold in Poland. But that might not happen since the painting has been the subject of several literal standoffs over the past several weeks.

Starting in March 2022, the Polish government has been questioning the work’s provenance, with claims that the painting was stolen and moved from Poland to Germany during the Second World War. DESA Unicum, however, claims that the work belonged to a Polish-German family who moved to Germany in the 1950s and took the painting with them. On November 21st, police went to the auction house to try and seize the Reality but left empty-handed. Last week, police returned accompanied by staff from the Zachęta National Gallery of Art and again left without the painting. It wasn’t because they couldn’t find the painting but rather because of trivial objections raised by the auction house. The first time authorities attempted to seize the work, auction house staff prevented police from removing Reality from the premises because DESA Unicum employees claimed that they had brought inadequate packaging for the work and could not allow them to leave with the painting lest it be damaged in transit. This was why the most recent attempt to seize the painting included museum employees. And yet still, auction house employees raised more objections, specifically that authorities are permitted to take only the canvas and that the frame is property of DESA Unicum and would have to be removed first.

Malczewski’s Rzeczywistość is still set to appear at DESA Unicum’s upcoming Old Masters, 19th Century, and Modern Art evening sale on December 8th. It is unknown whether prosecutors will attempt to seize the painting again before then.