Karol Estreicher, Jr. (1906-1984)
One of Poland’s most prominent art historians, Karol Estreicher, Jr. was born on March 4, 1906 in Kraków, Poland. He earned a Master’s degree in 1928 and a Ph.D. in 1947 from Jagiellonian University in Kraków. He was a member of the Commission of the History of Art of the Academy of Science and Letters in Kraków, Director of the Diocesan Museum in Sandomierz, and Keeper of the Cabinet of Prints and Engravings in Kraków.
Estreicher’s turbulent life during the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 was described in his memoir, entitled ‘September 1939’, published in 1940 under the pseudonym Dominik Wegierski. Within two months of the invasion, his father, the distinguished Polish law professor Stanislaw Estreicher, was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. He died soon thereafter. In the midst of such turmoil and injustice, Estreicher remained devoted to the protection of his country’s artistic treasures. Before fleeing Poland, he supervised the dismantling and evacuation of the fifteenth-century Veit Stoss altarpiece to a remote hiding place in Sandomierz, Poland. At three stories tall, it stood as the largest Gothic altarpiece in the world and a priceless symbol of Poland’s cultural patrimony.
While in exile in Paris, Estreicher served as Secretary to the Polish Government-in-Exile’s Premiere, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, before later fleeing to London. There, Estreicher directed the Polish Office for Recovering Works of Art, which coordinated the removal of cultural treasures from Poland as well as the recovery of confiscated Polish works of art and cultural items. In September 1939, Polish authorities sent some of their greatest national treasures to Paris and Aubusson via Romania. In early June 1940, just prior to the German occupation of France, Estreicher escorted the manuscripts of Frédéric Chopin and the Pelplin edition of the Gutenberg Bible from France to England on a small commercial ship, the M.S. Chorzów.
As the war progressed, Estreicher and his team recorded every detail regarding lost or confiscated Polish art and cultural objects. They maintained dangerous correspondences with informants inside Poland and Germany, who risked their lives to provide integral information. Estreicher’s resulting card catalogues traced the whereabouts of lost objects, identified individuals involved in looting activities, and recorded every item of news related to missing Polish objects.
To raise awareness of the extent of Nazi looting in Poland, Estreicher traveled to the United States between November 1942 and April 1943. In addition to lectures at universities including Columbia, Harvard, and Yale, he also met with a number of American officials. One such meeting included Francis Henry Taylor, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who shortly thereafter became a member of the Roberts Commission. In 1944, after nearly three years of intensive research, Estreicher published Cultural Losses of Poland: Index of Polish cultural losses during the German occupation, 1939-1944, which provided the groundwork for the detailed restitution efforts in Poland at war’s end.
Estreicher also played an integral role in the establishment of the Inter-Allied Commission for the Protection and Restitution of Cultural Material (the Vaucher Commission) in April 1944. Composed of representatives from numerous Allied governments, the Vaucher Commission collected information regarding Nazi looting for eventual use by the Allies in postwar restitution efforts. The Vaucher Commission functioned as a central bureau for information on looted objects and issued lists of looted objects to Monuments Officers until its dissolution in November 1945. The methods devised by Estreicher and the Commission were later utilized in the interrogations of several Nazi art dealers and individuals by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Art Looting Investigation Unit.
Meanwhile, Estreicher became the official Polish Liaison Officer for Restitution in the American Zone of Occupation. While stationed at the Munich Central Collecting Point, he worked with the MFAA to oversee the return of looted Polish objects and works of art to the Polish government.
His greatest achievement involved the recovery of the Veit Stoss altarpiece, which he himself had evacuated just before the invasion of Poland. Despite his efforts to protect this national treasure, the Sonderkommando Paulsen, an SS unit, located the altarpiece and sent it to Berlin in October 1939, and later to Nuremberg Castle in March 1940. Always conscious of appearances, Hitler and other Nazi leaders argued that, because the Veit Stoss altarpiece had been created by a German sculptor in Germany, it was therefore “German” and belonged in the Third Reich. Estreicher and the Polish government-in-exile had carefully tracked the location of the altarpiece during the war and had confirmed its location at Nuremberg Castle by as early as 1943. Subsequently, Estreicher arranged the retrieval of the altarpiece during his first restitution mission in the U.S. Zone of Occupation. On April 30, 1946, the twenty-seven-car train containing the Veit Stoss altarpiece and other looted Polish treasures including Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, arrived in Kraków to the acclaim of delighted Polish citizens and much ceremonial fanfare. Accompanying Estreicher were Monuments Officers Capt. Everett P. Lesley, Lt. Frank P. Albright, and Lt. Julianna Bumbar, and a contingent of twelve U.S. Army guards.
Over the next two years, Estreicher made seven additional trips to the U.S. Zone of Occupation, working closely with his fellow Monuments Men to secure the return of looted Polish cultural property. After returning to his beloved Poland, Estreicher resumed his career as a historian and professor of art history in Kraków. He re-edited and completed the unfinished Bibliografia Polska (a reference work on all significant Polish authors from the 15th to 19th centuries), which was initiated in 1870 by his grandfather Karol Jozef Estreicher (1827–1908) and continued by his father Stanislaw Estreicher. In addition, he served as a member of the Society of the Friends of Fine Arts until his retirement in 1976.
Karol Estreicher, Jr. died in Kraków on April 29, 1984.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.