Nazi Loot Claim Over $77 Million Bruegel Painting Triggers Row Between Austria and Poland

Vienna denies the claims, but documents found in Krakow suggest wrongdoing.

A painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), is at the center of a dispute between Austria and Poland after claims arose that the artwork might be Nazi loot.

According to the Financial Times, documents that have surfaced in Krakow’s National Museum claim that the Renaissance masterpiece, whose value is estimated at $77 million, was seized by Charlotte von Wächter, the wife of Krakow’s Nazi governor Otto von Wächter, during the German occupation of Poland.

This has sparked an administrative row over the provenance and ownership of the painting, which is currently displayed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this painting,” Meredith Hale, a fellow in Netherlandish art at Cambridge University, told the press. “If it was taken unlawfully from Krakow to Vienna, it would be a huge story for the art world, as big as it gets.”

Otto von Wächter (right) with other German Nazi government officials of occupied Poland.<br /> Photo: via Opera Mundi

Otto von Wächter (right) with other German Nazi government officials of occupied Poland.
Photo: via Opera Mundi

Diana Blonska, director of the National Museum in Krakow, has presented a research paper in which she claims that documents in the museum’s archive state that Charlotte von Wächter visited the museum in 1939 and took the painting alongside others, some of which “ended up in the antique markets of Vienna.”

Blonska even cites a letter written by Feliks Kopera, then-director of the museum, in March 1946 and sent to Krakow’s authorities:

“The Museum suffered major, irretrievable losses at the hands of the wife of the governor of the Kraków Distrikt, Frau Wächter, a Viennese woman aged about 35. […] Items that went missing included paintings such as: Breughel’s The Fight Between Lent and Carnival.”

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, meanwhile, claims that it has owned the painting since the 17th century, and that the artwork seized by von Wächter in 1939 was a different painting.

According to the FT, the conflict coincides with a campaign by Polish authorities to track down and recover art and artifacts looted from galleries and private collections by Nazis during World War Two, with an estimated aggregated worth of €22 billion. Poland will demand Austrian authorities to conduct a proper investigation into the provenance of the painting, Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita reported.

“There is evidence to suggest wrongdoing on a serious scale, and a pressing need to fully investigate the provenance of the Bruegel painting […] including whether it was taken from the National Museum in Krakow,” Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London, told the FT.

Sand has written at length about the Wächter family and wrote the script of My Nazi Legacy (2015), a recently launched film about Wächter’s son Horst, which in turn inspired Polish journalists to investigate the provenance of the Bruegel painting.

Film still of My Nazi Legacy (2015), directed by David Evans and written by Philippe Sands.<br>Photo: via BFI

Film still of My Nazi Legacy (2015), directed by David Evans and written by Philippe Sands.
Photo: via BFI.

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