On the track of a murder and “The Nun”

Was there a serial killer of art collectors in the Polish People’s Republic? The fact is, for many years the capital city had been shaken by mysterious deaths and tragic events that afflicted antique lovers.

It was a well-known case: on March 8, 1967 Marian T. –artist, painter and collector, worldy man – didn’t show up at work. The disturbed assistant informed his son about it. Together, they went to the painter’s house. They found him lying on the floor, with extensive head wounds. They immediately notified the Citizens’ Militia.

It turned out that the collector was first stunned by a shotgun blast and then murdered by being hit on the head with a heavy object. The murder weapon was a beautiful statuette.

During the search, the militia discovered that a calendar painting entitled “The Nun” had disappeared from the apartment filled with antiques, works of art and valuable china. The work could have come from the workshop of Albrecht Dürer, one of the most important painters of the turn of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. To this day, it appears on the national list of stolen or illegally exported monuments.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE It is possible that other valuable items, paintings and currency were also stolen from the apartment. The investigators, however, assumed that the crime was motivated by a desire to acquire a valuable work of art. So they were looking for both the murderer and “The Nun”.

They thoroughly screened the family and professional contacts of the deceased. It was extremely strenuous work, because Mr. T. not only had a large family, but he was also a social person, and in addition he had been collecting valuable objects since the war – most likely because at that time they were, like gold, a safe investment of capital – he thus knew many people from different circles and backgrounds.

As the militiamen suspected that the painting might have been taken abroad, they published communiqués in the Western press. They then received several letters, but none contained information that the portrait had appeared anywhere. Despite extensive efforts, the investigation yielded no results.

As a result, the case of the robbery at Marian T. has expired, but the fate of the missing painting is still of interest to the criminal services.
A lost painting, but is it really an Albrecht Dürer? Photo: Card 24, PA0002 – print screen
The history of “The Nun” is also very interesting because nothing is known about its origin. It does not appear in the literature devoted to the artist’s work. Art historians have not been able to determine who the woman depicted in the portrait was. In addition, not only is the monogram characteristic of Dürer’s works not visible, but also fragments of the portrayed figure, such as the hands and the finesse with which they were rendered, raise doubts.

But one has to be careful in their judgment. In Poland, there is already a Dürer of controversial provenance – “Portrait of a young Venetian woman” – belonging to the Wańkowicz family. It is also an interesting story, but for different reasons: in the 1920s, the owners found themselves in a difficult financial situation and decided to sell the painting. Polish experts recognized it as a forgery. But the news of the portrait spread throughout Europe. In 1923, it was bought for a song by a Milanese antiquarian of Polish descent, a certain Rajkiewicz, and then sold in Vienna to the Berlin museum... but for huge money.

Rafael from a small room

The fate of Marian T. resembles the story of another tragic death – that of the pre-war colonel Grzegorz B. on 3 February 1960.

The man was found in agony. He was lying near the railway tracks in Mazovia. He had no documents with him. He was transported to the hospital where he died.

The militiamen managed to establish his identity, but not the cause of death. They considered various hypotheses, from suicide (the man was lonely, occupying a room in his relatives’ house) to murder. They quickly discovered that the deceased was a well-known collector in the community, he enjoyed the opinion of a specialist in numismatics and historical incunabula. What’s more, he had very valuable items: catalogs devoted to numismatics, medals and old prints valued at up to 2,000 PLN per piece.

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Friends claimed that Mr. B. was the owner of paintings by Henryk Rodakowski and Teodor Axentowicz as well as Spanish masters (including Jusepe de Ribera). In addition, he was to show them the painting “Madonna and Child”, which he attributed to Rafael and whose value he estimated at several dozen thousand zlotys. It is said that B. bought the painting from a clergyman from Lviv and had a card with a description of the work’s origin.

Information about the alleged Rafael decorating the colonel’s room can also be considered sensational. Therefore, it was carefully approached not only by the prosecutor and investigators of the 1960s, but also by modern experts.

Rafael Santi’s works usually adorn large collections, such as the collections of the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. From the beginning of the 19th century, the pearl of this collection was the Big Three: “Portrait of a Young Man” by Raphael, “Lady with an Ermine” by Leonardo da Vinci and “Landscape with the Good Samaritan” by Rembrandt. In 1939, the Czartoryski family tried to hide the collection from the Germans, but the Nazis intercepted the box in which the Big Three were transported and sent it to the Third Reich.

As a result of friction between the factions of Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler, the works were transferred to Hans Frank as a temporary deposit and found their way to Wawel. At the end of the war, the General Governor decided to evacuate them from the Soviets to Morawa near Strzegom. The collections arrived there on January 20, 1945. Two days later, the General Governor left Lower Silesia with 20 paintings, including “Lady with an Ermine” and “Landscape with the Good Samaritan”. Due to its unwieldy dimensions, “Portrait of a Young Man” remained in Morawa. And at that moment it vanished into the blue.

Poland regained the Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt, but the painting by Raphael since 1945 is still at the top of Polish war losses.
Artists, architects and writers used to visit “Lajkonik”. The walls of the cafe were decorated with drawings by Zbigniew Lengren, Eryk Lipieńska, Jerzy Flisak and Anna Gosławska-Lipińska. Photo: PAP/Andrzej Chmielewski
The thing is, Colonel B. was a sophisticated collector. Before the liquidation of private trade in the early 1950s, the collector regularly visited places associated with art in Warsaw: “Dom Książki” in Świętokrzyska St., an antiquarian shop at the junction of Chmielna and Nowy Świat (probably “Home” belonging to Stanisław Rzeźnicki, selling art objects on commission) and – which adds spice to this story – Eugeniusz Maj’s Painting Salon, the first post-war, serious antiquarian salon in left-bank Warsaw, nota bene also affected by many tragedies.

The antiquarian’s partner, a certain Mrs. Fryczowa, died on her way home from work – she fell from the damaged Poniatowski Bridge and killed herself on the spot. In May 1948, the shop was almost completely burnt down.

From the statements made by the well-known antiquarian and forensic expert Tadeusz Wierzejski and prof. Dr. Jerzy Sienkiewicz, curator and manager of the Gallery of Polish Painting at the National Museum in Warsaw it appears that Maj’s antique shop offered works by Polish masters (including the Kossaks, Gierymskis, Olga Boznańska), Dutch paintings from the 18th century, and works by Italian and German artists.

In the 1950s, Mr. B. also visited Desa salons and probed the possibility of establishing contacts with the National Museum in Warsaw. He would sit in the legendary “Lajkonik” – the favorite place of the cream of Warsaw at that time, where the guests were served by a waitress of stunning beauty.

Artists, architects and writers were there: Otto Axer, Henryk Tomaszewski, Antoni Słonimski, Julian Tuwim and Jerzy Hryniewiecki. Representatives of the authorities, such as Lucjan Motyka or Michał Kaczorowski, as well as Professor Stanisław Lorentz would also pop in. The walls of the cafe were decorated with witty frescoes by Eryk Lipiński and Jerzy Zaruba.
Leopold Tyrmand, who described “Lajkonik” in his cult novel about Warsaw “Zły”, also regularly appeared there: “The cafe was small, you entered it straight from the street; it would be better suited for a colonial shop. There was a nickel-plated coffee maker on the counter, and a hideous chandelier hung from the ceiling, resembling a landscape of the Moon’s surface; small tables and stools were crammed into this cramped space. […] The cramped conditions, direct entry from the street and low stools, on which you sat like in the kitchen of your neighbors, created an extremely talkative atmosphere here, so it’s no wonder that Lajkonik was the most powerful gossip institute in Warsaw…”

All B.’s friends said that he knew about art, so could he be so wrong about Rafael?

However, it was noticed that just before his death, the usually sensible and foresighted colonel began to behave strangely: he suspected that someone was following him, he was afraid of Tuesdays. He also left a surprising farewell letter in which he explained that he was innocent, “and the evidence gathered was the result of perfidy”.

In August 1960, the investigation into his death was discontinued due to “exhaustion of possibilities to discover further evidence and insufficient evidence of guilt”. Meanwhile the alleged Raphael was quietly searched for, but it vanished into thin air.

Treasures on a pig farm

The mysterious deaths of Marian T. and Grzegorz B. are sensational stories also because – as it turns out – murders motivated by the desire to acquire a work of art are extremely rare. Usually works are lost, but not people. In the literature on the subject, I found only three such cases in the world – including one from Poland.

It is about the case of the murdered Piotr K. Only one thing disappeared from his apartment – Eduard Gruetzer’s painting of Falstaff sitting at the table. Money, jewelry, high-end electronic equipment remained. This tragedy was revealed in 1986. No additional details were given, not even the approximate date of death of the owner of “Falstaff”.

Abroad, the victims were mainly museum guards, and most often by accident. On July 24, 1969, the Archaeological Museum in Izmir was attacked. The perpetrators bound the guard, inflicted many blows on him with a knife, and then beat him to death with a crowbar. They stole 128 artifacts worth five million dollars at the time. Some of the stolen treasures were three thousand years old!

Behind the robbery was an international gang specializing in theft of antiques. The mastermind behind the operation was a man with a passport in the name of Joseph Max Hofmeister. It soon turned out that his real name was Maksymilian Kroneder and he was a Munich merchant.

In August 1969 he was caught after a dramatic chase. Some of the stolen items were found in his car. Two of the three accomplices of the German were also arrested – Turk Ihsan Ariel and Bulgarian Svo Boyov. The prosecutor conducting the investigation celebrated the success with ... a cup of tea.
The thief was seized with an irrepressible desire to get a painting by Paul Gauguin and stole “The Brooding Woman”. Photo: httpsworcester.emuseum.comcollections
On May 18, 1972, two armed and masked men burst into the Museum of Fine Arts in Worcester, Massachusetts. The assailants shot a guard and stole four paintings valued at one million dollars at the time. These were “St. Bartholomew” from Rembrandt's workshop, “The Brooding Woman” from 1891, one of the most famous paintings by early Paul Gauguin from his Thai period; “Woman's Head” by the same artist and “Mother and Child” by Pablo Picasso.

The most valuable of them was the work of Rembrandt, the greatest attraction of this provincial museum. Witnesses said the attackers had accomplices and fled in a white Oldsmobile. Richard Teitz, director of the Museum, claimed that the perpetrators did not act blindly.

Years later, he turned out to be right. After several weeks of investigation, the FBI tracked down the robbers. It has been established that one of them fled to Canada. Federal agents arrested all the perpetrators and recovered the stolen works. The attackers were sentenced to several years in prison.

In 2011, the gang mastermind Florian Monday gave an interview to “The Globe”. He confessed that he was an avid collector and became obsessed with owning a Rembrandt work. He chose a provincial museum because of its poor security. However, since he decided that it was not profitable to steal only one painting, he chose several other artifacts. He didn’t work on commission, he didn’t have an agreed buyer, he didn’t have international contacts. He hid his treasures on a pig farm in Rhode Island.

– Małgorzata Borkowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists


IPN BU 01255/253/D (paginacja na aktach: 1047-1054);
IPN BU 383_577_t2 (paginacja naniesiona ołówkiem: 353-359);
IPN BU 383_577_t1 (str 123-127; 129-132; 137-141; 143-146; 155-158; 305-310);
Stanisław Bołdok „Antykwariaty artystyczna salony i domy aukcyjne. Historia warszawskiego rynku sztuki w latach 1800-1950”;
Jan Świeczyński „Grabieżcy kultury i fałszerze sztuki”;
„Dürer z Polski i szpilka od krawata” – Mariusz Pilus, Art Sherlock, 09.10.2017;
„Portet młodzieńca – losy zaginionego obrazu” J. Robert Kudelski, http://dzielautracone.gov.pl/artykuly/100-portret-mlodzienca-losy-zaginionego-obrazu;
Neues Deutschland „Museumsräuber gestellt” 07.08.1969 r.;
Telegram&Gazette „Photos: 50 years afer Worcester Art Museum Heist” 4 05 2022 r. (https://eu.telegram.com/picture-gallery/news/2022/05/04/photos-50-years-after-worcester-art-museum-heist/9648241002/);
Telegram&Gazette „50 years later Doherty High students recall being caught in armed heist at Worcester Art Museum” 04. 05. 2022 r. ,(https://www.worcesterart.org/news/pdf/Doherty-High-students-recall-1972-armed-heist-at-Worcester-Art-Museum.pdf);
Boston.com „Crime of the art” 19.01.2011 http://archive.boston.com/lifestyle/articles/2011/06/19/botched_worcester_art_museum_heist_influenced_thieves/;

Main photo: The Lajkonik café in a stonehouse at Plac Trzech Krzyży 16 in Warsaw had a cult status in the 1960s. Photo: PAP/Andrzej Chmielewski
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