Where is the Rubens painting from Kalisz?

From the very beginning the clergymen and firemen suspected arson aimed at covering up the traces of theft. The witnesses claimed that before the fire broke out, the historic painting had been cut out of its frame. I saw a fragment of canvas with my own eyes. These weren’t unburned remains: they were torn off – said the then vicar, rev. Andrzej Gaweł.

The history began with a drama. Around 2 am od December 13/14, 1973 a random person spotted a fire in St. Nicholas’ Cathedral in Kalisz. They raised the alarm. The clergymen looking after the temple couldn’t believe their eyes: the historic altar was burning. They called the fire brigade immediately and secured the tabernacle. The firemen worked long hours. They saved the church but they failed to rescue the altar which was decorated with two picture: a priceless 17th century canvas “The Descent from the Cross” by Peter Paul Rubens and an image of St. Nicholas by un unknown artist. Right after the rescue action questions arose about the causes of the tragedy. The case was puzzling because it was an altar and a world-class monument that had burnt.

“The Descent from the Cross” arrived in Kalisz around 1620. It was imported by Piotr Żeromski, a royal secretary, with family ties to Kalisz. Since the 17th century the painting had adorned the main altar. It left Kalisz only once – in September 1939, after the outbreak of the war, when the then parish priest deposited it in the National Museum in Warsaw. A few days after the capture of Kalisz the Germans arrested the priests in charge of St. Nicholas’ church, subjected them to multi-day tortures, but none of them revealed where the masterpiece was hidden. It was only discovered by the experts of Kai Mühlmann.

The Austrian historian of art Mühlmann was an important figure in the Nazi system of power. Ranked SS-Standartenführer, he served as secretary of state and director of the General Governorate’s Main Department of Knowledge and Science, but also as director of the organization called “Dienststelle Mühlmann” (Mühlmann’s Bureau). It is he who bears responsibility for looting and exporting works of art from occupied Poland.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The experts of this very “bureau” transported Rubens’ work back to Kalisz, meanwhile incorporated to the III Reich. The painting ended up in the town hall. After the war it returned to the altar of the church. It could be admired till the unlucky night. What really happened in Kalisz on December 13/14, 1973?

Unusual fire

Several years ago, in 2017, I met the witnesses of the drama. – It was no ordinary fire – Major Józef Dąbrowski, the fire brigade commander in charge of the firefighting operation at the time, argued at a meeting organized at the Museum of the Kalisz Region. – It was the only one of the fires without militia guards, there was nobody in uniform at all. There were a few plainclothes officers. There was a professor from Poznań who asked if we had swept anything after the fire. No, we didn’t sweep. A silver netting was sought, which should remain in the fire, because the burning temperature of the wood, the ignition temperature is 150 degrees (...) We did not find this mesh – he recalled.
And this is not the only mystery, so from the very beginning the clergymen and firemen suspected arson aimed at covering up the traces of theft. The witnesses claimed that before the fire broke out, the historic painting had been cut out of its frame. I saw a fragment of canvas with my own eyes. These weren’t unburned remains: they were torn off – said the then vicar, rev. Andrzej Gaweł. – The authorities, instead of making every effort to clarify the truth of what happened, sought to close this investigation as soon as possible”, he added. The clergy tried to report the matter to Interpol. But it wasn’t until after 1989 that the international police organization took notice. The reason was probably the fact that in 1952 the Polish People’s Republic broke off cooperation with the organization. Poland was re-admitted to Interpol in 1990. – At the same time, i.e. in December 1973, three churches were set on fire. It was a time when everything in the Church was intended to be destroyed at all costs, recalled Rev. Gaweł.

Who would be behind the theft? The case did not have a political background: after the massacre of workers on the coast [in December 1970], the authorities changed in the People’s Republic of Poland. The new team in the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party made a number of conciliatory gestures towards various circles: it gave permission for the reconstruction of the Royal Castle in Warsaw and temporarily improved relations with the Church: inter alia it allowed the construction of new sacral buildings. On June 23, 1971, the parliament passed a law regulating church property in the Western and Northern Territories, six new dioceses were established. In addition, the personal relations of Edward Gierek, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party and Primate Wyszyński were not burdened by any animosities. What’s more, at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, the Ministry of Internal Affairs decided that in the fight against the Church, it was worth giving up “solutions by force” in favor of more subtle methods: disintegration, disinformation...

When the cat is asleep...

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

Is it possible that the Polish secret police knew nothing about illegal practice lasting over 20 years?

see more
The point is that for art thieves, the People’s Republic of Poland was a paradise. The scale of the phenomenon was therefore enormous. Colonel Tadeusz Rydzek, director of the Criminal Bureau of the Citizens’ Militia, examined as many as 704 such cases. Conclusions? There was no proper security for the objects, customs control was ineffective, and in addition there was a lack of comprehensive legal solutions and high-class specialists - investigative art historians. And the criminals have not been idle.

In 1961, the conservator of the Silesian Museum, Daniela Stankiewicz, discovered that not the original but a copy of the 16th-century masterpiece “Madonna under Firs” by Lucas Cranach the Elder hangs in the Bishop’s Palace in Ostrów Tumski. The counterfeiter went to great lengths to make the counterfeit as credible as possible. The trained eye of the conservator discovered, however, that the technique, dimensions, and width of the boards did not match... The researcher published the results of her research in 1965 in “Biuletyn Historii Sztuki”. It turned out that the original of one of the artist’s best works had been lost. The Metropolitan Curia conducted an internal investigation into the matter. However, it did not inform the prosecutor’s office about the disappearance of the painting, fearing that it could be used in games with the Church. But investigators “discretely” kept their eyes on the case anyway.

The work appeared on the market in 1970 – an unknown antiquarian company offered it to the State Museums in Berlin. These refused. Then a purchase offer was received by the Pinakothek in Munich. She also refused. So the work was offered to a private collector in Switzerland. The collector ordered an expert opinion, however, the expert Dr. Dieter Koepplin refused to certify the authenticity of the painting. Knowing its story, he notified the embassy of the Polish People’s Republic in Cologne. However, the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland ignored this information - at least officially.

A long-term investigation by the German police showed that the masterpiece was taken from Wrocław in 1947 by a German priest, Siegrfried Zimmer, one of the authors of the forgery. The clergyman decided to paint a forgery of the work and “save the original from the communists and return it to the German nation”. He asked a former student, Georg Kupke, for help. Both finished their jobs before being deported to the Soviet occupation zone in Germany. Crossing the Polish-German border, the clergyman cleverly saved the painting from confiscation – he wrapped it in oilcloth and held it on his lap as a coffee mat. Customs officers took only a few gold coins, which he hid in a trunk as bait. After moving to the GDR, he sold “Madonna”. After many vicissitudes, the original painting returned to Wrocław in 2012.
“Madonna under firs” by Lucas Cranach the Elder from early 16th century after nearly 70 years, in 2012 , returned to Wrocław. Photo: PAP / Maciej Kulczycki
Another famous case: in 1965, a burglary took place at the museum in Lidzbark Warmiński. The plunder included exhibits borrowed from the National Museum in Warsaw: works of sacral art and precious jewels worth about PLN 24 million. Among the stolen items there was Spanish procession cross from the 16th century, chalice of bishop Marcin Kromer, pacific of bishop Łukasz Watzenrode, chalice of bishop Jan Konarski… The investigation in this case lasted several years, the perpetrators were arrested. Unfortunately, much of the loot was exported to the West.

Mysterious informant

Investigators trying to solve the case of a mysterious fire in Kalisz considered several hypotheses – both a short circuit of the main altar’s electrical system, but also arson. The investigative team conducted several experiments and called in experts. Ultimately, the militiamen accepted the version that the event occurred due to a faulty electrical installation and that the painting burned down. The preparatory proceedings conducted by the Citizens’ Militia in Poznań were discontinued less than a year later – on October 18, 1974.

However, the secret file of the case shows that the investigators were unable to rule out the hypothesis that the Rubens painting was stolen and deliberately set on fire. There were a number of reasons for this; including the fact that, after the fire, cut marks were found on scraps of cloth in the vicinity of the nails securing the cloth to the frame.

The clergy and residents of Kalisz did not believe in an accident. For many reasons: if only because earlier on the priests had applied to the authorities in Poznań for a subsidy for a refractory cassette. They didn’t get a grant. Instead, they were suggested to donate the painting to the museum. As if that wasn’t enough, after the case was discontinued, the priests asked for the evidence back. This, however... was missing.

But investigators also had doubts. So they did not stop looking at the case, although the investigation has not officially been resumed. On July 31, 1975, the Ministry of the Interior received an anonymous letter from an author, claiming to be a resident of London, that the fire had been set on purpose to cover up traces of theft. The informant also allegedly witnessed the sale of a Rubens work in London. He also provided personal details of the alleged thieves and a detailed description of the event.
He claimed that three men were behind the theft. First, the picture was cut out of the frame. Then, using a controlled explosion, the perpetrators destroyed the frames of the stolen painting and started a fire in the place where it was located. The canvas was rolled up and transported by car to Warsaw. From there, in order to confuse the trail, through Ostrołęka and Świnoujście, it went to Stockholm. Presumably, from the Swedish capital, it was transported to London and sold at an auction for 400,000 dollars.

Investigators once again carefully examined the circumstances of the case. In a note of April 6, 1978, sent to the director of the office for combating economic crimes of the Citizens’ Militia, a request was made to initiate operational reconnaissance. What’s more, when explaining the fire in Kalisz, information about several organized crime groups was found.

One specialized in circulating significant amounts of counterfeit currency. The other in human smuggling. The third was an international gang based in Austria and Switzerland – this organization was involved in arms trade (with African and South American countries), drugs and antiquarian items. In the procedure, it used cars of international forwarding companies. Antiques were transported in trucks, closed after customs clearance, across the border of the People’s Republic of Poland to Ystad or through Czechoslovakia to Austria.

It was revealed that in mid-August 1973, gang members smuggled, from Wrocław, an antiquarian painting, a tabernacle, a valuable collection of coins and a peasant’s trunk. The landscape, the tabernacle and the chest were sold to an antiquarian in Munich. The coins were handed over to the gang boss. Investigators also investigated whether these smugglers had also taken Lucas Cranach’s painting “Madonna under Firs” from Poland. And since at least two of the gang members were East German citizens, their case was handed over to the East German prosecutor’s office. However, the militiamen did not come across any trace of the painting from Kalisz.


To this day, it is not known what happened to “The Descent from the Cross” by Rubens - perhaps the painting actually burned down. It is worth mentioning, however, that the expert opinions from the 1970s were not perfect. In addition, electrifying information appears on the art market from time to time that a work by Rubens from Kalisz is for sale. Apparently, in 1993 in Vienna it was offered to a Polish collector. So there was a suspicion that it was an attempt to conduct a survey on the possible ransom that the Polish Church could pay for the recovery of the work.

– Małgorzata Borkowska – Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists


Włodzimierz Kalicki, Monika Kuhnke „Sztuka zagrabiona 2: Madonna znika pod szklanką kawy”; chapters: „Madonna znika pod szklanką kawy”; „Królowa morza pod ziemią”
Akta IPN „Bu_0_1255_253/D” str (pagination consistent with file marks: 2634-2657; 2667-2669; 2672-2679, 2682-2888, 2713, 2718-2719; 2745-2746; 2752-2753)„Fałszerstwa oraz przemyt znaków pieniężnych i dzieł sztuki w Polsce” – materials of the scientific symposium of the Feliks Dzierżyński Higher School for Officers of the Interior Ministry; chapters: „Geneza i formy przemytu dóbr kultury w Polsce w latach 1945-1986” ; „ Ochrona dóbr kultury w PRL”;
„Straty muzeów, straty zabytków”; Zaginione, poszukiwane dobra kultury (1973); Krótka historia obrazu P.P. Rubensa „Zdjęcie z krzyża” (https://stratyzabytkow.nimoz.pl/?p=3172)
Michalina Peruga „Lucas Cranach starszy: Madonna pod jodłami”; website niezła sztuka

Main photo: Year 1969. Fragment of the main altar at the St. Nicholas Collegiate Church (now Cathedral) with a painting by Peter Paul Rubens “The Descent from the Cross”. Photo: PAP / Witold Rozmysłowicz
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.