Poland Threatens Prison for Man Refusing to Return Nazi-Looted Art

New York Times 15 March 2019
By Joanna Berendt

The Polish government is threatening to jail Alexander Khochinsky, a New York art dealer of Russian descent, if he does not return “Girl With a Dove,” by the French master Antoine Pesne.

WARSAW — When World War II ended, with Warsaw in rubble, an 18th-century rococo oil painting by the French master Antoine Pesne, “Girl With a Dove,” was one of hundreds of thousands of artworks in Poland that had gone missing.

The painting, which was stolen from a Polish museum in 1943, was hardly the most valuable work of art lost, with an appraised value today of no more than $22,000.

But since Polish authorities learned of its whereabouts nine years ago, it has set off an oddly furious battle over its return.

The Polish government is threatening to put the man who now has it in jail for 10 years if he does not turn it over.

The man, a New York art dealer of Russian descent, Alexander Khochinsky, has refused, arguing he’ll only return it if the Polish government compensates him for its appropriation of his family’s property in Poland after his mother, a Jew, fled the Nazis.

Mr. Khochinsky’s land claim is not based on the most detailed of document trails. He has only an address in Przemysl, a city in southeastern Poland, from his mother’s birth certificate. But it is, nonetheless, the stance he is taking, even as Poland ramps up its efforts to have him extradited to face criminal charges related to the acquisition of stolen goods.

Last month, during a visit to Paris he was detained by police, and is now currently barred by court order from leaving the European Union. For his part, Mr. Khochinsky has sued Poland in United States federal court, arguing that its efforts to retrieve the painting, which he says he inherited from his father, a former Soviet soldier, have damaged his business.

Resolving international disputes over looted art is never easy. But this one has become particularly complicated by the fact that Polish suffering and losses from the war remain a potent issue here. Anything that touches on the nation’s unfathomable suffering during the war, which saw six million Poles killed, of which three million were Jewish, sets off a wellspring of emotion. The current right-wing government has tapped into those feelings and intensified in recent years its efforts to track plundered treasures and rebuild the nation’s historical heritage. The official list of “looted art” still includes some 63,000 objects.

Mr. Khochinsky, on the other hand, has raised the specter of anti-Semitism in the Polish government’s pursuit of him, and in its refusal to negotiate compensation for what he describes as the confiscation of his mother’s home. On the site now stands a Catholic Church.

“I believe that the criminal case against me was fully fabricated,” he said. “It was retaliation for me seeking restitution for my family property.”

The barter exchange he seeks, though, seems unlikely, according to Sylwia Bartoszuk, a Polish lawyer who often works with Jewish claimants, in part because Mr. Khochinsky does not have the sort of land records that would support such a claim.

“Besides, you cannot offer barter deals involving objects that were unlawfully acquired,” she said. “That painting, according to the Polish law, is property of the museum.”

“Girl With a Dove” was stolen from a Polish museum in 1943. It has an appraised value today of no more than $22,000.

Created by Pesne in 1754, “Girl With a Dove” depicts a half-naked young woman cradling a bird in her hand. It was bought by the Wielkopolskie Museum in western Poland, which has been since renamed to the National Museum in Poznan, in 1931. The Germans looted the museum during their occupation, but much of what they stole was taken from them by the advancing Red Army, and sent to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Khochinsky said that his father, who died in 1991, told him that the Soviets had found the painting in a house occupied by German soldiers, brought it with them to Moscow, where his father bought it after the war. 

After his father’s death, Mr. Khochinsky, who grew up in Russia, said he exhibited the painting in his gallery, Bogema, in Moscow. It was not until 2010, he said, that he accidentally learned from an organization that searches for missing artwork, that the piece was wanted by Poland.

He reached out to Poland’s embassy in Russia and offered his trade.

Poland sent a curator to Moscow to examine the painting. He decided it was the same one stolen from the museum.

“I found the signature and all its other original markings,” said Piotr Michalowski, the curator.

Polish authorities contend that two acquaintances of the art dealer have told them that Mr. Khochinsky did not inherit the painting but bought it at an action in the West.

When Poland demanded Mr. Khochinsky return the artwork with no conditions, he hid it before the Russian police raided his gallery. It is now stored safely in Russia, he said.

In 2013, based on Mr. Michalowski’s report, Poland filed an extradition request for Mr. Khochinsky, accusing him of knowing the painting had been stolen at the time he acquired it. By this time, Mr. Khochinsky had moved to the United States, where in 2015, eight F.B.I. agents burst into his apartment in Lower Manhattan one morning and walked him out in handcuffs, still wearing slippers.

But a United States judge ruled that, contrary to Poland’s motion, there was no proof that Mr. Khochinsky had known “Girl With a Dove” was stolen at the time he acquired it.

Its request denied, Poland resumed efforts to extradite Mr. Khochinsky last month and had him detained at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. He was later released from custody but is staying in a French hotel. His extradition hearing is in June.

Mr. Khochinsky said that he no longer believed that the painting in his possession is the original “Girl With a Dove.” His suit against Poland argues that as a result of its proceedings, he had been forced to shut down his art gallery in Moscow and his “livelihood has been all but ruined.”

Under Russian law, Mr. Khochinsky has argued, since the painting had been taken from an area under German occupation, its removal constituted “compensatory restitution” for the damage that Germany caused the Soviet Union during the war.

Poland’s government did not answer questions about the investigation and lawsuit.

Mr. Michalowski said it is difficult to be optimistic about the return of the painting, even with the potential sanction against Mr. Khochinsky.

“Maybe the extradition request was an extreme move, I don’t know about that,” Mr. Michalowski said, “But Poland is desperately trying retrieve its lost artworks and it’s almost impossible to get anything from Russia. I don’t really see a big chance of succeeding here either.”
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