Have you seen this painting? It is missing. Since 1945. On the day of reopening the Princes Czartoryski Museum, let’s explore the story of one of the most important paintings to have gone missing during World War II.
Portrait of a Young Man was created by Raphael probably in 1513–1514. By many it is considered to be the most important painting to have gone missing during World War II. It was stolen from the Prince Czartoryski Museum in Poland by the Nazis.
The collection had three highlights – Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine, Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan and Portrait of a Young Man. When the Nazis entered Poland in September 1939 all three paintings were hidden – walled up in the outbuilding of an aristocratic residence in the small Polish town of Sieniawa. Unfortunately, two weeks later, the Nazis discovered the hide away and the paintings and the masterpieces decorated first Hans Frank’s (the governor of the General Government) residence in Kraków and later were sent to Berlin and Dresden, to become part of the Führer’s own collection at Linz. In August 1944, Leonardo and Rembrandt were moved to the palace in the Lower Silesian town Sichów, which was the headquarters of Hans Frank at the time. Was Raphael with them? It wasn’t confirmed in any reports.
At this moment, nothing about this story is certain. What has happened to the Raphael? Was it taken by Hans Frank who in 1945 was fleeing from the Allies? Or was it taken by someone else? The Allies arrested Frank in May 1945. Leonardo’s and Rembrandt’s paintings were found in his villa and luckily came back to Poland. But Raphael’s portrait wasn’t there.
In the 2014 film The Monuments Men, which tells the story of an Allied group from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program that is given the task of finding and saving pieces of art and other culturally important items before Nazis destroy or steal them, the painting is shown being destroyed by the Germans in an unidentified cave or mine that German troops set on fire with flamethrowers. But there is no evidence that this situation ever happened. On the other hand, from time to time some new information about the portrait pops up – that there is a chance that the painting is in some mysterious private collection in Germany, the United States, Switzerland or in Russia. But nothing was officially confirmed yet and the whereabouts of the painting remains unknown.
What about the portrait itself? The subject’s identity is unverified, but many scholars have traditionally regarded it as Raphael’s self-portrait, although there is no proof of this. The young man is richly-dressed and confidently-poised. It is probable that Raphael’s studious approach to idealized representation of human proportion was based on his studies of ancient athletic and military heroes in Classical sculpture such as Doryphoros and Augustus of Prima Porta. The only photos of the painting are in black and white. We don’t know what colors Raphael used on it exactly.
I need to add one more thing. I mentioned that the painting was in the Czartoryski Museum collection. The collection remained in private hands until 2016 when the Polish state bought it for 100 million euro. The price includes the rights for the Raphael’s Portrait of the Young Man. According to some art market specialists, if found, the painting itself would be worth in excess of 100 million US dollars today. The collection found its place in Krakow, as part of the National Museum in Krakow. Today there is a huge opening of the Princes Czartoryski Museum. On one of the museum’s walls, an empty frame will be hung. It is the original frame of the painting, still waiting for the painting to come back to its rightful place.