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The Czartoryski Museum was founded in 1796 by Princess Izabela Czartoryska to preserve the Polish heritage in keeping with the Princess' motto: "The Past to the Future". The first objects in the so-called "Temple of Memory" were trophies commemorating the victory against the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1683. The Museum also features historical artefacts from the looted treasures of the Wawel Cathedral, the Royal Castle and other objects donates by Polish Families. Izabela also bought the treasures of the Dukes of Brabant which included his books, which were to be a particular highlight of the collection. Influenced by the Romantic artistic movement, she also acquired objects of sentimental significance that represented the glory and misery of human life. Among these were Shakespeare's chair, fragments from the grave of Romeo and Juliet, ashes of El Cid and Ximena from the Cathedral of Burgos, and relics from Abelard and Heloise, and Petrach and Laura.

In 1798, Izabela's son, Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, travelled to Italy and acquired "The Lady with an Ermine" by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael's "Portrait of A Young Man", and many Roman antiquities. However, Prince Adam Jerzy was always more a politician than an art-collector. He was condemned to death by the Russians after the 1830 insurrection and forced to flee across Europe. He established himself in Paris, and in 1843 bought The Hotel Lambert which became the Living Museum of Poland. All the objects from the first museum were displayed in Paris.

Upon Prince Adam Jerzy's death, his younger son, Prince Wladyslaw, took over the museum. A born collector, he and his sister, Princess Isabella Dzalynska, expanded the collection to include: the Polonaise carpet, Etruscan and Greek vases, Roman and Egyptian antiquities as well as arms and armours, and Limoges enamels. At the 1865 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, Wladyslaw created a Polish room to exhibit the famous carpet and part of his collection.

In 1871, after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Prince Wladyslaw packed or hid all of the artefacts and fled. In 1874, the city of Krakow offered him the arsenal in the Old Wall as a museum, which he called upon Violet-le-Duc to renovate, who in turn delegated the project to his son-in-law Maurice Ouradou. In 1878, one hundred years after Princess Izabela's set up her museum in Pulawy, the new museum, as it is seen today, was opened. For nearly twenty years until his death in 1894, Prince Wladyslaw set about adding to the collection.

Prince Adam Ludwik, then carried on the work of his father, Prince Wladyslaw, and in 1897 he takes over the Sieniawa Ordynacja property with the Emperor Francis-Joseph. At that point his capital assets were estimated at 4.5 million Austrian Crowns, not including the Collections. In 1899, Adam Ludwik's aunt Izabela Dzialynska bequeathed The Goluchow Estate, with all the collections that she had bought with her beloved brother Wladyslaw, to her two nephews. Prince Adam Ludwik cared for the two Museums.

He then travelled to Japan and acquired the vases and bronzes still displayed today at the Goluchow Castle. In 1914, he was called up to the Austrian Army and his wife Princess Maria Ludwika took over the Museum and took most of the important artefacts to Dresden because of her connections with the Royal Saxon Family. Although at the end of the war the Czartoryskis encountered resistance to bringing the collection back in Poland, the collection is finally restored to the museum in Krakow in 1920.

In 1937, after Prince Adam Ludwick's death, his son Prince Agustyn, takes over as head of the Family. He married Princess Dolores Victoria Maria de las Mercedes de Borbon y Orleans and spent most of his time in Poland. Then, in August 1939, Europe is thrown into turmoil, and the museum is forced to prepare for war. Sixteen cases packed with the most precious objects are transported and walled in Sieniawa, while the rest of the collection is carried down to the cellars of the museum, where unfortunately the Germans find the cases and loot the tradable objects. Luckily although the Leonardo and other pictures are roughly handled, they are not damaged.

On September 22, 1939, Prince Agustyn removed what remained of the treasures and took them to his cousin's property in Pewkinie. However, soon afterwards the Gestapo finds the cases and takes them back to Krakow though not to the museum. On January 25, 1940, the final selections of the 85 most important items from the Museum are sent to Dresden where Dr. Posse, Hitler's plenipotentiary, decides that all objects are to be part of the Fuhrer's own Collection at Linz. From that moment the museum, whose curator was to die in a concentration camp, is closed to the public.

In 1945, Dr. Hans Frank, german governor of Poland and personal friend of Hitler brought the paintings from Berlin for his own use at the Wawel Castle. But when the Germans evacuate Krakow in January, he takes the paintings with him to Silesia and then to his own villa in Neuhaus. The Americans arrest Frank on May 4, and the Polish representative at the Allies Commission for the Retrieval of Works of Art claimed the stolen paintings on behalf of the Czartoryski Museum. However, the Raphael and 843 other artefacts are missing from the collection.

When the Iron Curtain is drawn on Poland, the museum is reopened and run by the communist government. Although the economical situation is desperate, it survived thanks largely to the work of Professor Marek Rostworoski who dedicated his life to the collection. In 1991, the High Court of the Nation returned the Museum to its rightful owner, Prince Adam Karol Czartoryski, along with the library housed in a nearby buildings.

Today the Museum is administered by the Princes Czartoryski Foundation set up by Prince Adam Karol in 1991. The Museum has organized exhibitions in Italy (Rome-Milan-Florence), Sweden (Malmo- Stockholm), Turkey (Istanbul), and Japan (Kyoto-Nagoya-Yokohama). In the fall of 2002, "The Lady With An Ermine" was featured at the Milwaukee Art Museum's tribute to the splendour of Poland. The portrait and other items from the Collection also went on to Houston and San Francisco throughout 2003.

Three important objects were found and recuperated for the museum:

  1. The "Polonaise" carpet was found at Christies auction house in London on behalf of an Australian seller - it was recuperated with help from the Polish government after 5 years of legal battle, and on the 23rd of September 1997 finally returns to the Museum.

  2. An Islamic textile important for its iconographical representation of angels from the 16th century, was handed back to the Foundation on the 10th of May 2002 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

  3. A 15th century reliquary, bought in good faith on the art market in 1954 by the private Abegg-Stifrung Museum in Riggisberg Switzerland and returned to the Czartoryski Foundation on the 15th of September 2004 during the official visit of the President of the Republic of Poland Mr. Aleksander Kwasnieski and Mrs. Kwasnieska to Bern.