College paintings were stolen 'to order'

July 4, 1997

Polish police are hunting thieves who stole eight portraits from Wroclaw University's famous baroque Leopoldine Hall, writes Vera Rich.

The police believe the robbery was commissioned by a collector, since it would be difficult to sell the paintings on the open market. They fear the works left the country on the night they were stolen.

The Leopoldine Hall is the only complete building the university has inherited from its predecessor, the Leopoldine Academy, founded in 1702 under the German emperor Leopold I. The hall, inaugurated in 1732, is decorated with carvings and allegorical frescoes.

The portraits are of notable persons associated with the academy, including Pope Urban VIII, King Frederick the Great of Prussia, the Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand II, and were mounted in baroque frames on the pillars separating the windows of the hall. Art experts say that it is difficult to value the paintings since their value was inextricably linked with their setting in the hall.

Ironically, the theft coincided with a major eucharistic conference and a visit to the city by Pope John Paul II.

The pictures were not insured, and, although the university has suffered a number of robberies recently, security appears to have been minimal. The hall has no burglar alarms, and only one of two porters supposed to protect the two-storey building - a 71-year-old pensioner - was on duty on the night of the burglary .

The university has offered 20,000 new zloty (Pounds 3,700) for information leading to the recovery of the paintings, and a newspaper offered a further 10,000.

A freephone line with guaranteed anonymity has been set up for information on the thefts.

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