The Polish government just got an amazing deal on priceless art it didn’t need to buy

The prince and the painting.
The prince and the painting.
Image: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
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The Polish government bought a massive private art collection that includes works by Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt for $105 million, a fraction of its market value. The highly controversial transaction between the populist right-wing government and a prince with ties to the Spanish royals was made official on Dec. 29.

The collection was started more than 200 years ago by Izabela Czartoryska, a patriotic princess who wanted to preserve it for future generations of Poles. It contains 86,000 pieces such as “Lady with an Ermine” from 1490 by da Vinci, drawings by Auguste Renoir, as well as 250,000 historical documents. Hundreds of works of art that have been looted from the collection over the years and are currently missing, including a piece by Raphael, were included in the sale, should they ever be found.

The Czartoryski family art is estimated to be worth around $2 billion, and the government touts the sale as a good deal. But the political opposition and liberal commentators in Poland look at the amount differently, seeing it as a gargantuan, unnecessary cost to taxpayers. They say it’s $105 million for… nothing.

Here’s why: the collection, as legally stipulated in its statute, was never supposed to be sold, and was required to be made available to the Polish public. The argument against the sale goes: it was already a national, public treasure even if it wasn’t owned by the government.

“They purchased a collection which was and will be available [to the public],” said Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, an activist and politician from the left-wing party Razem to Polish radio station TokFM (link in Polish, as are all of the following.) The money, she said “should be spent on something that you don’t have.”

Her party added an additional, historical criticism of the sale in a statement on Facebook: “The Czartoryskis bought the ‘Lady with an Ermine’ for money they got from exploiting peasants—our ancestors. Now the Czartoryskis will get money from our pockets from that same painting. The descendants of peasants never received reparations for years of indentured servitude.”

Others, including two former ministers of culture, criticized the deal for a lack of transparency.  

In order to make the sale possible, the statute of the foundation that manages the collection, which was established in 1991, was changed earlier this month. The deal was struck by the head of the foundation, Adam Karol Czartoryski, a Polish-Spanish prince and descendant of Izabela, the collection’s founder. The rest of the board resigned, saying that they were not included in the negotiations with the government. They said they could no longer trust Czartoryski.

What are the government’s reasons for the purchase? One, ostensibly, is the threat that the artworks could be sold abroad. Piotr Gliński, the minister of culture said in May that Poland could lose the “Lady with an Ermine.” That’s an unlikely scenario, according to experts, who say the painting, so expensive, old and rare, is impossible to sell. More important, the purchase fits with the ruling party’s politics, which emphasize Polish national pride.