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Still Missing: Raphael’s Self-Portrait

March 15, 2024
A Renaissance portrait of a young man with long hair and a black cap

Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael

Other than no one knowing where the stolen art is, the previous entries in the Still Missing series all have one thing in common. We don’t know who stole the paintings. This incident, however, is the exception. We know exactly who took Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man.

For over a century, the painting, widely believed to be a self-portrait, was the property of the Czartoryski family, a noble family from Poland. Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski acquired it in the 1790s while traveling in Italy, bringing it back to add to the family collection along with Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Lady with an Ermine. Though Prince Czartoryski briefly served as foreign minister for Czar Alexander I, he later became a prominent figure in the November 1830 Polish uprising against Russian rule. Subsequently, a portion of his family’s art collection was destroyed, but he was able to send most of it to safety in Paris, where it would remain for over forty years. When his son, Prince Władysław, returned to Poland, he brought the collection with him and used it as the basis for a museum in Kraków. Today, the Czartoryski Museum is one of the finest art museums in Poland, having recently undergone renovations completed in 2019. However, when the Nazis invaded the country in 1939, the Czartoryski Museum became one of the prime targets for their plunder.

During the invasion, Władysław’s grandson Augustyn managed to flee 130 miles east of Kraków to his house in Sieniawa. However, the Gestapo caught up with him and confiscated the three paintings he brought with him: the Raphael, the Leonardo, and Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan. Hitler’s governor-general of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, decorated his Kraków office with these three paintings. The last time anyone saw Portrait of a Young Man was at Wawel Castle in January 1945. It was originally thought Frank took the painting with him when he fled Kraków. After the Allies arrested Frank, they recovered Lady with an Ermine and Landscape with the Good Samaritan. However, the Allied Commission for the Retrieval of Works of Art never found the Raphael. Some estimate that, should the portrait be relocated, it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Czartoryski family continues to search for the painting. The popular 2014 film The Monuments Men features the painting, showing it being destroyed by German soldiers with flamethrowers. However, the Polish Foreign Ministry insists that the painting survived the war and is simply lost. It is undoubtedly the most important and most valuable work of art lost during the Second World War.