Smuggling El Dorado. Paintings, jewelry, antic furniture disappearing from the Polish People’s Republic…

The scale of the practice was enormous. Hundreds of names run through the investigation, some of the people involved were not utterly conscious of what they were participating in. The scandal was nick-named “the Goldheads’ Smuggling Operation”.

As a result of an accidental arrest of Wanda Dębińska, a currency dealer, on December 14, 1972 there was a gigantic investigation revealing that in the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa – HRTA: PRL) there were gangs smuggling gold, works of art and people.

The detainee didn’t want to turn in her accomplices for a long time. She thought up a fictitious supplier named “Andrzej”, she even presented his description. The investigators didn’t believe her. Eventually Dembińska admitted that it had been her cousin, Zygmunt Mossakowski. She believed her testimony wouldn’t do him any harm as he was absent from the country. She was wrong.

When her relative was detained she altered her testimony again and stated that the only supplier of gold and hard currency was Witold Mętlewicz. Both were detained and questioned. Thus the Militia settled that there had been operating – for many years at that – a very efficient smuggling gang. It was named “the Goldheads”.

Brazilians launched the operation What could have been the scale of the practice? According to the PRL press – a large one. It was the most famous scandal those days. Hundreds of names run through the investigation, some of the people involved were not utterly conscious of what they were participating in.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE A special team was set up in the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Individual suspects were assigned to chosen, highly regarded officers. The inquiry was conducted simultaneously in Warsaw, Gdańsk, Katowice, Łódź, Rzeszów, Wrocław, Bydgoszcz, Kraków, Lublin and Olsztyn. All together – the “Goldheads” affair plus those which came to light “by the away” – 29 investigations, in which 85 people were accused were carried out. 59 of the latter were sentenced.

“The whole thing began quite a long time ago (in the late 1940s - author's note), when Brazilian diplomats Roberto Ch. Pacheco, Anibal Maranhao and J.A. The Gonclaves de Jesus brought dollars in banknotes from abroad. Then the dollars came in gold, and these diplomats decided to kill their own bird on the occasion. Private exchange transactions began. The trade was gradually expanding – wrote “Życie Warszawy”. – It was then that the future head of the smuggling mafia appeared on the horizon, Czesław Bednarczyk, then an appraiser of the antique shop in Three Crosses Square”. It’s about the “Veritas” store, working under the patronage of the “PAX” Catholic Association. By the way, the association was absolutely legal, moreover it collaborated with PRL authorities which attempted to gain control over the Catholic Church.

These two names – Czesław Bednarczyk and Witold Mętlewicz – turned out to be crucial. Bot gentlemen used to work for PAX for some time – the first was an expert at the “Veritas” antique shop, the latter found a job at the INCO United Economic groups, linked with PAX. The PAX thread will come up again in this story.

“Why specifically antiques? Trade and smuggling of gold, foreign currency and antiquarian objects – works of art, white rare books (“white ravens” in Polish), numismatics, etc. – was a very lucrative practice in the People’s Republic of Poland. Due to the post-war chaos, the incorporation of the Recovered Territories into Poland and ... the law.

Agricultural reform of March 1, 1945, enabling “securing works of art contained in the estates covered by the Act against destruction or dispersion”, devaluation of the Polish zloty of 1950 and the Act of October 28, 1950 prohibiting the possession of foreign currencies, gold and platinum, and tightening penalties for foreign exchange offenses (including capital punishment) drove the private trade in works of art, currency and gold underground.
Street sale of antiques, among others: jewelry and a statuette. The client is looking at cold steel. Photo: Stefan Rasalski, NAC
Although in 1950 the “DESA” State Enterprise was established, it offered very low prices compared to free market prices. Therefore, items from Lower Silesian or Pomeranian castles, taken from Berlin by the “trophy” NKVD troops, or finally those sold by desperate former landowners, found their way to the black market. Some of them were not listed in the compendium “Polish collections. Archives, libraries, offices, galleries, museums and other collections of memorabilia of the past in the homeland and abroad arranged in alphabetical order and by place” by Edward Chwalewnik.

There quickly appeared a group of collectors interested in enlarging the collections, counterfeiters counterfeiting the works of great masters and smugglers smuggling works of art, foreign currencies, watches and even ... people (Germans, Jews and former landowners) along with their property.

The escape of counts Andrzej and Maria Potocki, who in October 1946 tried to flee the country with 42 chests filled with works of art from their own collections, went down in history. These were, among others, paintings by Bacciarelli, Matejko or Michałowski. The Potocki used the help of the smugglers’ network of Stefan Rybicki, known as the “White Captain”. They failed. They were arrested and their collection was taken over by the Ministry of Public Security.

Art without borders

However, Czesław Bednarczyk made it to go abroad in 1960. In the years 1953-1960 he ran an antique store in Warsaw and amassed a huge collection. He took most of them with him. Prof. Stanisław Lorentz, then director of the National Museum in Warsaw, explained in the weekly “Polityka” that the entrepreneurial antiquarian took 43 items to Vienna with the consent of the Conservation Office.

Czesław Bednarczyk founded an antiquarian salon in the Austrian capital He quickly gained a reputation as an international expert on glass, porcelain and silver. He organized exhibitions of Polish art. He also bought Polish works of art, such as objects from the Merwin collection, stored in poor conditions in New York. Journalists presented him as a ruthless man – the mastermind of the gang.

“The insiders say that although the Warsaw antiquarian left our country, he did not break off contacts with it, in Vienna he is visited by his friends from Poland, including many people from the world of culture and science, and as it can be assumed, these visits are not only of a social nature” wrote “Polityka”.

Bednarczyk’s contacts were e.g. the Mętlewicz brothers, Tomasz and Witold, who together with their father ran an antique shop in Warsaw. It was thanks to them that paintings by Polish and foreign painters, 16th and 17th Century silver objects (not always authentic) were sent to Vienna; glassware and porcelain, old faience and wooden sculptures from the 16th century. In return, gold bars, foreign currencies and cars flowed to Poland.

Business on such a scale would not be possible without diplomats from the Brazilian embassy, and possibly also from Venezuela, Mexico and Iran. It was them who, using their diplomatic passports, took works of art out of Poland and brought in gold. Their luggage was not checked thoroughly. An important role in the project was played by the translator from the Brazilian Embassy, Mieczysław Młynarczyk, who, together with Mętlewicz, delivered the “goods” to the diplomats.

“There was only one thing the owner of the Viennese salon did not like: withdrawing from the business on their own”, reported the Warsaw press, based on the testimony of Włodzimierz Chryniewiecki, who was one of the gang’s suppliers.

First the Militia and the Army moved in, then decrees were passed. Helpless Council?

Despite the obvious violation of the constitution, after 1989 no one was brought before the State Tribunal.

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Chryniewiecki convinced the militiamen who interrogated him that during one of his stays in Vienna, he tried to withdraw from the business. Supposedly Bednarczyk made it clear to him at that pointthat he and his family would no longer be able to feel safe. “Knowing the character of Bednarczyk and his ruthlessness in dealing with the competition, I was simply scared”, Chryniewiecki is said to have testified.

The investigation files show that Młynarczyk also claimed that he was being blackmailed by Polish recipients of gold and was afraid that the termination of his activities and disclosure of the truth could end for him “as for the son of Bolesław Piasecki” – he was to say during the interrogation, although he did not support it with any evidence.

The case of the murder of 15-year-old Bohdan Piasecki was famous at that time. On January 15, 1957, the boy was abducted by two men outside his school. Later, it turned out that the kidnappers took him by taxi to the air-raid shelter in the building at Aleja Świerczewskiego 82a (now Aleja “Solidarności”) in Warsaw. There, probably on the same day, Bohdan was murdered. His body was not found until December 8, 1958. What were the kidnappers after? It is not known, the case has not been clarified to this day, but one of the many hypotheses says that it could have been a ransom, another that it was about revenge.

The boy’s father, Bolesław Piasecki, was a wealthy and influential man by the conditions of the People’s Republic of Poland: before the war, he was associated with the nationalists and headed the National-Radical Movement “Falanga”; after the war, he founded and for many years headed the “PAX” Caholic Association, which included, among others, the “Veritas” chain of stores and the INCO enterprise. At that time, he was also a member of the PRL legislative assembly, and in the years 1971–1979 a member of the State Council.

In an article published in the Sunday Times, Czesław Bednarczyk introduced himself as a friend of Bolesław Piasecki. And of course he denied all the accusation.

However, the militiamen conducting the investigation x-rayed the commercial contacts of both “friends”. They also wondered what could have prompted the influential politician to employ Bednarczyk in “Veritas”. In addition, they suspected that Bednarczyk could have knowledge of up to 300 smugglers.

Could the Secret Police have been unaware?

Meanwhile, the antiquarian firmly denied, in various Western newspapers, that he had any connection with the gold or foreign currency trade.

In an article published in the German weekly Spiegel, he claimed that he had been visited in Vienna by “gentlemen from Warsaw with letters from four accused. I think they were dictated. I was supposed to transfer money from Switzerland and return some works of art.” In return, he was reportedly offered to have his name cut from the trial. Bednarczyk was to refuse. He called the trial of the “Goldenheads” political propaganda and assured that in his large and reputable shop “objects from Poland do not constitute a percent” of the merchandise.

Anyway, the German journalist also found it strange that the Security Service – involved in a widely branched foreign exchange scandal in 1972 – knew nothing about the illegal practice, which lasted over 20 years (from 1953 to 1973).

In addition, there are many indications that the gang was packed with people cooperating with the Secret Police to various degrees. Witold Mętlewicz was an informant, he reported e.g. on Bednarczyk, counting on a passport for himself and his wife. He didn’t get a passport, but he continued to report. The security officers gave him the pseudonym Witold. Młynarczyk claimed that he transferred money to two officers of the services. The Institute of National Remembrance holds evidence confirming his words. But he was also a hard drinker and was considered completely unreliable.

Tadeusz Wierzejski, a custodian and philanthropist, also moved in the circle of the “Goldheads”. It was a big deal in the world of museologists. He was a collector himself and had great collections. At the end of his life, he donated them to several Polish museums. Bednarczyk bought antiques from him.

Wierzejski collaborated with the Secret Police between 1950 and 57. He signed the loyalty agreement after being questioned by col. Julia Brystygier. He was not convicted in the trial of the “Goldheads” and his name was removed from the case. And finally: it is known that the Secret Police tried to recruit Bednarczyk himself.

The gang’s trial took place in 1975-76. The indictment referred to the exportation of hundreds of works of art from Poland and the smuggling of 16 tons of gold into the country. On December 18, 1976, the sentence was pronounced: Witold Mętlewicz and Mieczysław Młynarczyk were sentenced to a 25-year incarceration, fined one million zlotys each, and had their property confiscated. Eight others were given lesser sentences. Bednarczyk never stood trial. Neither did Brazilian diplomats. Not only “Goldheads”

The “Goldheads” scandal, although the greatest, was not isolated. Already in June 1969, “Polityka” recalled the cases of the thwarted smuggling of collections from Łódź, another collector who went to Paris and opened an antique shop there, and the story of an American graphic artist whose baggage contained 180 items questioned, as well as the history of an antique brooch that was intercepted on border, turned to “DESA”, and soon after ... found on the bust of a countess attending a diplomatic reception in Paris.
In January 1971, Rainer Barzel, then chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction, came to Poland. In the photo: German politician with his wife Krimhild in the art and antiques gallery in Aleje Jerozolimskie. Photo: PAP/Jan Morek
“Each year, especially in the summer, <> stores are flooded by foreigners, or rather people substituted by them, who buy Polish items for zlotys, of which it is known that they will not to be approved for export. They are not approved, and yet in the end they leave our country via various channels. Well-known foreign collectors, such as Klevan from Austria or Kozłowski from the Federal Republic of Germany, have been traveling around Poland for many years and, having completed all formalities with the <> Foreign Trade Bureau, with their own vans, they take out our cultural possessions in pieces. It is no coincidence that when nosy customs officers looked into Mr. Klevan’s luggage two years ago, they also found paintings from the 18th century that did not have the conservator’s seal allowing for export” – the weekly alerted.

The Sunday Times also drew attention to the astonishing ease with which religious objects, secular paintings, porcelain, jewelry and even antique furniture “leaked” out of Poland. British journalists even claimed to have a list of 83 such valuable objects. It was to include names such as Gainsborough, El Greco, Dürer, da Vinci and Rubens. Did the newspaper give true information? I haven’t been able to determine that.

– Małgorzata Borkowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Michał Haake, PhD, “Utracone arcydzieło. Losy obrazu »Targ na jarzyny« Józefa Pankiewicza”
Andrzej Gas, Złotogłowi, czyli jak wywieźć z Polski 18 mln dolarów, „Kultura” from January 4, 1976.
Sztuka nie zna granic, “Polityka” of June 14, 1969.
Gorzki epilog słodkiego życia, „Polityka” of December 20/27, 1975.
Mafia ma długie ręce. Sensacyjna afera przemytnicza przed sądem wojewódzkim w Warszawie, „Życie Warszawy” of December 16, 1975.
Contraband. The politics of the underground art business, “Sunday Times” of February 1, 1976.
Versiegelte Koffer, “Spiegel” of March 7, 1976.
Main photo: Wroclaw, 1948. Street trade in Nowy Targ Square; in the depths – the ruins of tenement houses on the western frontage of the square. Photo: PAP
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