What's it Worth? Painting from a Polish museum curator as thanks

Mercury News 14 January 2011
By Jane Alexiadis, Oakland Tribune correspondent

Q: I inherited a painting from my great uncle, Col. Thomas Benesh of Chicago. The story as he told it to our family was that he was stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, at the end of World War II in the transportation division of the U.S. Army.

Gen. Eisenhower asked him to oversee the return of stolen art to museums throughout Europe. He returned a shipment of art to a museum in Krakow, Poland. The curator of this museum gave this painting to him as a token of his appreciation.

The painting is supposedly of a street scene in Krakow and is signed "Walther." It may be a Bernhardt Walther of late 1700s and early 1800s, although the street scene may be of more recent years.

Hope you can help with any information.

A: This inquiry brought up some hard questions. Nations are suing museums and cultural institutions to reclaim wrongfully looted or stolen national treasures purchased unknowingly -- most recently the Getty returned dozens of artifacts to Italy and Greece. At the same time museums and individuals are actively pursuing the return of items lost or stolen during Nazi occupation in Europe.

If this painting actually had been stolen from a museum in Poland and returned after the war, did the museum curator truly have the right to give it to a U.S. Army officer?

The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) and Art Loss Registry both have active programs researching the registration and provenance of items lost during and after World War II. As recently as a few weeks ago two paintings were seized from two well-known New York City auction houses after it was learned that the paintings had been stolen during the war from a Polish Jewish family who had been sent to a concentration camp. The paintings were returned to the descendants of the original owner.  

Should this painting be here in California at all? Is it a Krakow street scene belonging to a museum? Should I consult the International Cultural Property Ownership and Export Legislation? My first step was to examine the painting and then to contact the current owner for more information.

The Krakow Museum was established in 1879 as a showcase for Polish art, artifacts, decorative arts, textiles and coins. The painting, signed "Walther," is obviously a 20th-century scene. The woman's clothing and the architectural details on the building assure me that it was not done by an 18th century artist. I traced the work to a German artist, Karl Walther (1905-1981) who's other known works are remarkably like this one. It seems unlikely, then, that this piece had been in the collection of the Krakow Museum.

I contacted the owner of the painting who was able to give me a little more insight. His great uncle, Thomas Benesh, had worked in the railroads in Chicago before being drafted. The Army took notice of his transportation and logistics background and he was put to work in the transportation division in Germany.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had been appointed as the military governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone after the German surrender in 1945. One of Eisenhower's chief goals was documenting conditions within concentration camps in order to bring Nazis to trial. He also was charged with indemnifying, as best possible, individuals and institutions who had lost property in the war.

Eisenhower, aware of Benesh's logistics background, assigned him the duty of restoring stolen artwork to their owners. Benesh did manage to return trainloads of art to museums in Germany and Poland. He was able to restore art to the Krakow Museum and, in gratitude, the curator gave him this painting out of his personal collection. The curator and Benesh were both well-aware that the returned paintings were the property of the museum. Neither one would have given or accepted a work from the collection.

So what we have is a mid-20th-century oil on canvas street scene by the German painter Walther. It was never in a museum collection but it was in the personal collection of an art lover and museum curator in Krakow.

The monetary value of the painting is $1,200-$1,500; the thought-provoking historical questions brought up by its provenance invaluable.

Jane Alexiadis is an appraiser with Michaan's Auctions. Send your questions, any history, a brief description and measurements to Please send no more than three photos.
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