Written by Valérie Roger, a specialist on the work of sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon (1741-1828); supplied after the issue of her expert opinion on the work.


Absent from among the various known examples of sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon’s portrait of Diana was a marble bust once belonging to the collection of King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland. The work in question in fact resurfaced in the spring of 2015, when the owner put it up for sale through the Im Kinsky Auction House in Austria. I was contacted by the auction house in March with a request to issue an expert opinion on the work.

In congruity with the results of my analysis, the class and specificity of the marble bust of the goddess allowed me to determine that the work, looted by the Germans in 1940 and henceforth considered lost, did indeed belong to the collection of Stanislaus Augusts. These findings served as the basis for restitution efforts which resulted in the return of the Bust of Diana to its original home in Łazienki Palace in Warsaw.

The history of the lost work

In the 1777 Salon catalogue (Salon Carré in the Louvre, where the work of members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was exhibited), appearing under the number 248 among works by French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, is a “Marble Bust of Diana, of which a full-size model was made in the Royal Library. This sculpture is to be made from marble and placed in the gardens of His Highness the Prince of Saxe Gotha.”

The sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, above all a portraitist, produced several works of mythological or allegorical subject matter, including the life-size Diana the Huntress, which served as the basis for the bust, as usual produced in several copies.

Historical records show that the large Diana sculpture, originally intended for the prince of Saxe Gotha, finally joined the collection of Catherine the Great, where it most likely arrived by sea. Standing in for it in the prince’s collection was a life-size plaster model also produced by Houdon, who at that time had his workshop in the Royal Library, located on the ground floor along Rue de Richelieu in Paris.

The marble statue of Diana currently resides in the Calouste Gulbekian Museum in Lisbon along with its pendant sculpture of Apollo in bronze. The nearly two-meter-tall statue of Diana depicts the goddess of nature and the hunt as she runs. In one hand she holds a bow and in the other an arrow. She also wears a quiver, whose strap runs between her breasts.

The dignified and bold Diana confronts nature in the nude, for which the sculpture was once severely criticized despite being somewhat of a nod to the School of Fontainebleau tradition.

As a personification of the moon, Diana’s head is crowned with a crescent. The sculptor produced replicas of the work in various materials, one of which is a bronze sculpture in the Louvre, famous for its technical innovativeness.

What happened to the busts?

Up to the spring of 2015, we knew of only one marble bust of Diana attributed with certainty to Jean Antoine Houdon, in the possession of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. That bust, signed and dated “HOUDON FECIT. 1778” on the right shoulder, once belonged to the collection of Duke Marcellino de Fresnes. It was acquired by the National Gallery of Art in 1957.

Running between Diana’s breasts is the quiver strap, just like in the marble statue in Lisbon. Common to both sculptures is also the positioning of the head, turned to the side.

A drawing by Gabriel de Saint Aubin in the margin of the 1777 Salon catalogue shows Houdon’s Bust of Diana with the same strap between the breasts. However, thanks to mentions in literature, since the 19th century we have known of the existence of a second marble bust of Diana, this one belonging to the painting and sculpture collection of King Stanislaus Augustus of Poland. According to the authors, that work possesses a distinctive trait: it was signed twice. Louis Réau, an expert on Houdon’s work, remarked in his 1964 catalogue of the artist’s works: “It would be fascinating to compare this beautiful work with the bust from the Washington museum.” In relating the work’s description and provenance, Réau cited two Polish authors: Władysław Tatarkiewicz and Stanisław Lorentz.

In his 1919 catalogue of the collection of the last king of Poland, Władysław Tatarkiewicz named a marble bust of Diana by Houdon, describing it as having a strap on the breasts and being marked with a second signature from the year 1780.

Louis Réau offered the following interpretation of the double signature mentioned in the literature: that the first date (1777) is the date of production and the second (1780) – the date of sale; it would not have been the first time that the artist post-dated one of his works.

Stanisław Lorentz, the director of the National Museum in Warsaw in 1936-1982, could also have informed Louis Réau about the history of the bust by Houdon which once resided in the collection of the king of Poland. The bust from the Łazienki Palace was removed from Poland in 1915 by the Tsarist administration. It returned to Poland in 1922 and was put on display in the Łazienki Pavilion. Then, it was looted by the Germans in 1940 and from that point on considered lost. A copy of the work stood in its place in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw. The copy does not have the quiver strap, which may be the cause of confusion in certain more recent publications.

We also did know that King Stanislaus Augustus, being greatly fond of Houdon, acquired other works by the artist in his lifetime, much like many of his contemporary rulers: Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine the Great, the princes of Saxony, and the first president of the United States, George Washington.

What they all admired in the artist was his refined style and his ability to endow clay, plaster, marble or bronze with the sense of excitement permeating the lives of personages of his era. In fact, all of the great figures of the world yearned to have their face immortalized by the artist in an age when portraiture was not yet synonymous with photography. Enlightened rulers, Church dignitaries, military officials, revolutionaries as well as philosophers and fellow artists…The period saw the development of an astonishing collection of portraits, female as well as male, honoring eminent figures from the ancien régime to the time of the Empire.

The Bust of Diana, in particular, being a reference to mythology and an image of freedom, may have appealed to a philosopher king and exponent of progressive ideas such as King Stanislaus Augustus.

Let us also recall, for the sake of comparison, an inventory of works compiled by Houdon himself at around 1784. Listed under the number 60 and dated 1779 is a “marble bust of Dianna”(sic!). It is indeed entirely possible that the work being referred to is in fact the one produced in 1777, as Houdon often made dating errors in the inventories he kept.  

Identification of the looted object

When the Im Kinsky Auction House in Vienna contacted me in March 2015 seeking an expert opinion on a Bust of Diana signed by Houdon, I was very skeptical of the work’s authenticity on account of the many copies that have flooded the market. Nonetheless, I travelled to Vienna in order to examine the sculpture, staying there from 16 to 22 April.

It was necessary to make two visits, several days apart, in order to perform the analysis, photograph the work and to attain objective distance needed for contemplation. Being damaged, the work was in need of restoration (cleaning and repairs of small cracks at the crescent on the head and in the hair on the rear).

Overall, I was astounded by the sculpture’s characteristics, akin to those possessed by the piece I viewed in Washington and thus consistent with the artist’s intentions: the same angle of the head, the same strap across the breasts, the crescent on the top of the head, the nudity and vacant eyes… I found nothing added and no improper markings, as copies of works in Houdon’s style often bear.

Moreover, the treatment of the surface is consistent with the working method employed by the artist. This is evident in the execution of the hair, pinned and flowing downwards in casual locks onto the neck, the exceedingly subtle contouring of the ears, lips and nostrils, the characteristic use of a chisel and borer, and of a pointed chisel for the rear of the bust, etc. Further corroboration is found in the precision of the two signatures marking the piece: a cursive one reading “houdon, 1780” on the right shoulder, and one in uppercase letters on the strap across the back of the bust reading “A. HOUDON, F. AN. 1777”.

Diana small

 Prewar photo of the bust, the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences


The dimensions of the bust are close to those of the sculpture from Washington: height without base – 63.5 cm, width – 44.8 cm, depth – 33 cm.

Upon returning to Paris, after once more reading the texts of the aforementioned authors and my own documentation, I gradually became deeply convinced that the Vienna bust is indeed the very one that once adorned the palace in Łazienki Park in Warsaw and disappeared during German occupation.

Its strong artistic merits, verified in my analysis, and the famous double signature documented in the literature all support my conclusion. I find it reasonable to believe that both busts, from Vienna and Washington, were produced at approximately the same time in response to two separate commissions for different purposes; the one which I examined being eventually sent to Poland.

The bust exhibited in the Salon in 1777 could therefore be either the sculpture discovered in Vienna or the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, as the dates on Houdon’s works could invite confusion as a consequence of the artist’s readiness to postdate his works.

Ultimately, my expert opinion concludes with a high degree of confidence that we are dealing here with the rediscovery of the object looted by the Germans during World War II. Thanks to the courtesy of the Im Kinsky Auction House, I also learned that the current owner of the work had received it as a gift from his grandfather, who is believed to have acquired it in Poland around the year 1945. All of the information seemed to fall into place.

The return: the reinstatement of the Bust of Diana to its original home in the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw.

In light of the findings and the conclusion of my expert opinion delivered on 7 May 2015 to the Im Kinsky Auction House, I was obliged to impress upon them the need for immediate action in the form of checking databases of looted property and by taking measures to ensure that the work was not sold. I also once again informed the museum in Warsaw, following which, in June, Ms. Ewa Ziembińska was sent to Vienna to perform a comparative analysis of the sculpture with a photograph from the archives of the Łazienki Palace, dated 1933. That photograph confirmed the consistencies in every regard, especially upon an analysis of the marble veining. Lastly, the red inventory marking reading “PII-a-5” which I had identified on the back of the bust occurred to perfectly match the inventory number assigned to the work by the Łazienki Palace in 1937.

My findings, which identified the work as the object looted from the King Stanislaus Augustus collection was thus validated. All that remained was to have the work returned to its original home. To this end, the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage enlisted the assistance of the Art Recovery Group, a London-based firm specializing in settling ownership disputes and recovering works of art.


I am delighted that the expert opinion I was asked to provide ended in the rediscovery of a lost work of art and that the bust has been returned to Poland.

We can only hope that, after its many trials, the Bust of Diana has found much-deserved respite in the land of its original residence. Its outstanding quality and its message of freedom are sure to bring it many admirers.

For the sake of further study of the artist’s work (see the article “Houdon artisan des matières” by Valérie Roger in Dossier de l’Art a special issue of L’Estampille, L’Objet c’Art, no. 105, March 2004) it would be interesting to continue the examination and to be able to compare the bust from Washington with the one from the Łazienki Palace in Warsaw, or even to possibly hold an exhibition and to invite art restorers for consultation in the analysis of the two sculptures.


translated from Polish by Szymon Włoch

J. Robert Kudelski

Among the most precious works of Medieval art in the whole of Poland is a Gothic altarpiece from the high altar of St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow depicting the Dormition of Mary. Consisting of over 200 figures, some of them nearing 3 meters in height, the altarpiece was produced by the Nuremburg master Veit Stoss over a period of 12 years, reaching completion in 1489. Altogether, the monumental work’s central cabinet and side panels measure 11 by 13 meters, making it the largest altarpiece of its kind in Europe. Such a distinction quickly turned the altarpiece into a symbol of Krakow, beckoning the faithful to St. Mary’s Basilica for the next 450 years.

Several weeks prior to the outbreak of World War II, the altarpiece was partially disassembled and the removed elements were hidden in Krakow and Sandomierz. However, by September 1939, the Germans had learned of their whereabouts and managed to seize the crates in which they were packed. In 1940, the altarpiece was taken to Nuremburg and it remained there until the end of the war.

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J. Robert Kudelski

Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man first arrived in Poland thanks to the efforts of Princess Izabella Czartoryska née Fleming, who started a collection of works of historical and cultural significance at her family residence in Puławy, Poland. Her aim was not only to acquire outstanding works of art but, above all, to gather pieces that would preserve the memory of momentous events in the history of Poland.

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J. Robert Kudelski                

The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by American author Lynn H. Nicholas first appeared on US bookstore shelves in 1995. Having studied in the US, Spain and the UK, Nicholas spent many years working in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where she came face to face with the issue of the art looting which transpired during wartime. It must be said that the subject is a rather prominent one in the history of that institution and many of its personnel – such as Charles Parkhurst, David Finley, Huntington Cairns, Lamont Moore and Craig Hugh Smyth – played an active part in the rescue of Europe’s cultural property during and after the Second World War. In 1945, the National Gallery was also the destination for 202 priceless paintings from German museums which had been discovered by the Americans in an underground storehouse set up towards the end of the war. As a result, one would be hard pressed to find a better place to become acquainted with the stories surrounding the fate of cultural goods from occupied Europe. Nicholas spent a portion of the 1980s living in Belgium – a country which had bitter first-hand experience with Nazi policy concerning culture and art. It was there that the author first embarked on her decade-long project which culminated in the publication of The Rape of Europe. The book’s first Polish edition – bearing the title Grabież Europy. Losy dzieł sztuki w Trzeciej Rzeszy i podczas II wojny światowej – appeared in 1997 through the publishing house Baran i Suszczyński. It’s latest (second) edition – with corrections and supplements – arrived in 2014 courtesy of Rebis Publishing.

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