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Son of Nazi Returns Stolen Works of Art to Poland

Credit:  The Guardian 26 February 2017.

February 2017 marked a key moment in Poland’s long effort to retrieve its treasures, taken from them during the war by Nazi art theives.

In 1939, Horst Wächter's father was appointed Nazi governor of Kraków: SS Gruppenführer Otto Wächter.  In December of that year, Horst's mother, Charlotte Wächter, walked into the National Museum in Kraków and looted every department, for the purposes of decorating the new headquarters her husband had established at the city’s Potocki Palace.

Antiques News & Fairs - Son of Nazi War Criminal Returns Stolen Art to Poland

Otto Wächter, the Nazi governor of Kraków (Image: The Guardian)

According to a Polish government assessment from 1946, Frau Wächter took “the most exquisite paintings and the most beautiful items of antique furniture, militaria, etc, despite the fact that the director of the museum had warned her against taking masterpieces for this purpose”.

On Sunday 26 February 2017, Horst Wächter, 78, the fourth of the SS general’s six children, attended a ceremony in Kraków where he returned three works to the Polish government that were stolen by his mother: a painting of the Potocki Palace, a map of C17th Poland, and an engraving of Kraków during the Renaissance.

Horst had spent years trying to return a painting taken by his parents from the Potocki Palace, but his attempts were unsuccessful.  The Potockis “did not want to have anything to do with me as the son of a Nazi”, said Wächter.

Antiques News & Fairs - Son of Nazi War Criminal Returns Stolen Art to Poland

Horst Wächter, son of SS Gruppenführer Otto Wächter (Image: My Nazi Legacy/Wildgaze Films)

About 68,000 Jews were expelled from Kraków in 1940 on the orders of Wächter, who later created the Kraków ghetto for the 15,000 Jews who remained.  Killings under his orders continued when Hitler transferred him to become governor of Galicia in the Ukraine in 1942.  The Wächter name still rings alarm bells in Poland today.

Negotiating the return of the artworks was the task of Magdalena Ogórek, a Polish politician and historian who had conducted a series of interviews with Horst Wächter for a book she was writing about his father.  Ogórek had spotted the C17th map of Kraków in a photograph that accompanied an article about Wächter in the Financial Times. On questioning him about it, he admitted his mother had stolen it, along with the other works.

She explains that Wächter was keen to return them - the difficult part was in convincing officials in Poland to negotiate with the son of such a notorious Nazi criminal: “Polish officials are reluctant to have contact with the children of Nazis, but I convinced them that our obligation was to do everything we could to return this painting to the city of Kraków.”

Wächter says he returned the art works to honour the memory of his mother, who died in 1985. “I am not especially proud of my deeds... I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.”

Antiques News & Fairs - Son of Nazi War Criminal Returns Stolen Art to Poland

Painting of the Potocki Palace in Kraków by C19th Polish Countess Julia Potocka, one of the items stolen by Charlotte Wächter (Image: The Polish Government)

Otto Wächter died under mysterious circumstances in Rome in 1949 while waiting to escape to Argentina. He was administered the last rites by Austrian bishop Alois Hudal, one of the main churchmen involved in rescuing Nazis from Allied justice.  “I have discovered a Hudal document in the Vatican secret archives that shows [Wächter] could have been poisoned.” says Ogórek.

An estimated half a million art objects were plundered from Poland by the occupying Nazi and Soviet forces during the second world war.  To this day, Poland’s ministry of culture watches the international art circuit vigilantly for any lost pieces of art that may turn up.  Unable to force their current holders to return them, Poland often has to buy the works at auction, sometimes from the descendants of the very people who stole them. 

“This is probably the first time that the member of a family of one of the most important Nazi occupiers is giving back art that was stolen from Poland during the war,” said Ryszard Czarnecki, a vice-president of the European parliament and a member of the Polish Law and Justice party.  The question remains as to how many other works of looted art might still be in the hands of families of other Nazi officers.

It is hoped that this pivotal moment will set an example for other descendants of Nazi art thieves, and encourage them to follow suit.

Antiques News & Fairs - Son of Nazi War Criminal Returns Stolen Art to Poland

The handover of the works from Horst Wächter to Polish officials (Image: Magda Ogórek)

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