Andrew Ciechanowiecki: 1924–2015

15 December 2015

The splendid obsequies of Andrew Ciechanowiecki, celebrated at the Brompton Oratory on 16 November, marked the passing of one of the most respected scholar-art dealers of the second half of the 20th century. This short memoir, which appeared in Apollo in 2005, was written to commemorate his 80th birthday (celebrated the previous year by a two day-long ceremony of almost equal elaboration in his native Warsaw). It recounts the principal achievements of Andrew Ciechanowiecki’s life, most notably his eponymous Foundation which has so enriched Warsaw Castle. But it does not do justice to the kindnesses and friendship that Andrew showed to so many of us, particularly young people. Nor does it touch upon the last decade of his busy life, where, despite being confined to a wheelchair and stoically suffering from his increasingly failing health, he maintained a lively and informed interest in everything, particularly the art world, from which he was always in the possession of the latest gossip.

It is not every dealer who has an artist named in his honour, but Count Andrew Ciechanowiecki, long the presiding genius of the Heim Gallery in London, has given his name to a mysterious master responsible for a clutch of rare seventeenth-century bronzes, now generally known to scholarship as the work of the ‘Ciechanowiecki Master’. It is a fitting tribute to one who has done so much for the revival of the appreciation of sculpture, and of baroque art in general.

Very often the world of art fails to appreciate the contribution of influential art dealers in the formation of taste and collections, both private and public, but Andrew Ciechanowiecki’s name deserves to be firmly inscribed on the roll-call of arbiters of taste during the second half of the twentieth century. He is well-known as an art dealer, but rather less familiar is his ambitious cultural initiative, the Ciechanowiecki Foundation.

Andrew Ciechanowiecki was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1924 and is the last of his line. His father, a diplomat, died young and much of his upbringing was entrusted to his English paternal grandmother, who lived in the imposing neo-renaissance family palazzo in ul. Piusa XI in Warsaw. The counts Ciechanowiecki are a noble Polish family who can trace their descent back to about 1380 and were established in Byelorussia from the sixteenth century. The family was expelled from Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1918, and nothing now survives of their great neoclassical house, Boczejkow, near Minsk, which had frescoed interiors and elaborate gardens on three terraces. Moreover, in 1939, when Ciechanowiecki was only fifteen, the last remnants of his family’s former prosperity were swept away when the Nazis marched into Poland. The family lost everything.

His education disrupted, Ciechanowiecki struggled to get a grounding in economics and history of art in one of the underground schools set up by the Polish Resistance, served in the Home Army and took part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Later, after a brief spell as chef de protocole to the Foreign Ministry of the short-lived interim government, he took a degree in economics at Cracow, followed by an in history of art at the Jagiellonian University, where he became assistant to the chair of art history. Indeed, Ciechanowiecki seemed destined for an academic career until his arrest in 1950 by the new Stalinist regime for ‘Anglo-American-Vatican contacts’ and, after seventeen months of interrogation, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Exonerated and released in 1956, he returned to his studies, winning scholarships from the British Council and the Ford Foundation that enabled him to study in Britain and the United States. In 1959 he spent a year in Germany, at Tubingen University, where he gained his doctorate.

This experience of the west and the increasingly difficult situation in Poland made Ciechanowiecki decide to leave his beloved homeland. He arrived in London in 1961 with just two pounds in his pocket and the determination to become a dealer in the works of art he loved and studied. Ciechanowiecki’s intelligence, energy, and his eye for the unusual soon paid off and English friends helped him become established as one of the co-founders of Mallett at Bourdon House. His first exhibition there, in November 1962, of works by the French animaliers – a term that Ciechanowiecki invented as a noun – demonstrates his talent for spotting a hitherto largely unappreciated artistic genre. Indeed, sculpture became his speciality, and in subsequent years Bourdon House was the venue for important exhibitions on terracotta sculpture (1963), Jules Dalou (1964) and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1965). These last two shows, made up of works purchased from the sculptors’ descendants whom Andrew had tracked down in France, helped re-establish the reputations of these by then neglected nineteenth-century artists.

Ciechanowiecki left Mallett in 1965 and went into partnership with Francois Heim, opening the Heim Gallery, at 59 Jermyn Street, with an exhibition of Italian baroque paintings and sculpture in June 1966. Once again, his taste and business acumen prevailed, as did his sense of showmanship, in his presentation of thematic collections of unusual and striking works of art in a variety of media in his elegant crimson-damask-hung premises. Two exhibitions were mounted each year for the next twenty years – a large mixed show of major works in summer and a smaller one in autumn with one or two star pieces. Exhibitions were invariably commemorated by scholarly catalogues, each piece being illustrated and objectively described, which in itself was a new departure. Indeed, the thirty-eight Heim Gallery catalogues produced between 1966 and 1986 can be said to have set the standard to which auctioneers’ and dealers’ catalogues now aspire. Scholars, collectors, museum directors, the fashionable world – even members of the royal family – flocked to the Heim Gallery exhibition openings celebrating what were then such novel themes as seventeenth-century French bronzes, Italian baroque oil sketches and neoclassical portrait busts. Ciechanowiecki also regularly collaborated with museums and other institutions on touring exhibitions: ‘The Twilight of the Medici’ shown in Detroit and Florence in 1974; ‘Giambologna’ at Edinburgh, London and Vienna in 1978; and ‘The Golden Age of Naples’ in Naples and Detroit in 1981.

Andrew Ciechanowiecki around 1982

Andrew Ciechanowiecki around 1982

Ciechanowiecki’s association with the Detroit Institute of Art was particularly fruitful, and many of the finest pieces in their impressive collection of European sculpture were acquired through his agency. Indeed, American museums, large and small, were the Heim Gallery’s most assiduous clients and Ciechanowiecki built up a considerable rapport with their curators and directors. Every year in March he would tour the United States, calling at museums with a leather-bound folio containing photographs and descriptions of his stock, telegraphing the results back to the gallery in London. Regular ports of call included Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Boston. The great institutions in Washington, DC and New York snapped up many of the choicest items, but smaller museums, such as Springfield, Mass., formed significant collections of baroque works of art through him. An important private client was the Ross family of Toronto, Canada, who bought elaborate and highly-wrought Florentine bronzes by Soldani-Benzi and Montauti, now in the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Louvre and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna occasionally bought pieces, but, perhaps surprisingly, British museums and galleries were amongst his most faithful customers, especially the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Scottish Museum, the Fitzwilliam, and the galleries at Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool. The distinguished collection of continental paintings and sculpture in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery was almost entirely built up from purchases from the Heim Gallery in the 60s and 70s. In his foreword to the two-volume Festschrift entitled La Scultura honouring Ciechanowiecki’s seventieth birthday in 1994, Anthony Radcliffe, former keeper of the Department of Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, recalled how Ciechanowiecki invariably offered pieces to British museums on favourable terms, and there were also occasional carefully chosen gifts to complement items already in a collection.

Buying was done mainly in Italy and France, although ‘runners’ occasionally brought extraordinary discoveries into the gallery – Ciechanowiecki’s Susini bronze from the collection of Louis XIV was a chance offering brought in by a lady from Argentina. He considers that the greatest coup of his career as a dealer was his sale to Cardiff in 1979 of the cartoons for the Decius Mus tapestries controversially attributed to Rubens, for a price that seemed huge at the time, but seems rather a bargain now. Other memorable sales include Alessandro Algardi’s terracotta model for his bust of Cardinal Zacchia, sold to the V&A in 1970, and a rare Antico bronze bust of a philosopher, sold to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the late 1960s for what now seems the ridiculous sum of 6,000 [pounds sterling]. Ciechanowiecki’s greatest regret is having to sell so much and being unable to hang on to stock. He recalls selling a ‘whole gallery full’ of neoclassical portrait busts in the Heim Gallery exhibition designed to coincide with the great Council of Europe ‘Age of NeoClassicism’ exhibition of 1972. (The accompanying paintings were equally interesting.) The prices realised at the time were modest, for works – by such artists as Houdon, Albacini, Thomire, Thorvaldsen, Bartolini, Chantrey, Tadolini, Gibson – ‘which would now be worth a fortune!’

Ciechanowiecki withdrew from the day-to-day business of the Heim Gallery in 1986, but continued to deal privately from offices at 78 Jermyn Street until 1991, when he sold his remaining stock and retired. For several years he divided his time between his homes in London, Paris and Rome, combined with regular visits to Poland, but a serious stroke in 1994 led to his being confined to a wheelchair, although his sharp intellect remains undimmed, as does his interest in people, art and culture. Although now obliged to live permanently in London, he makes frequent visits to Poland, where he still has many ties.

Perhaps the most important of these is the Ciechanowiecki Foundation, a charitable foundation that he set up in 1989 and which cares for, and occasionally adds to, a collection of works of art of Polish relevance and importance that be has collected for display at the restored Royal Castle in Warsaw.

Ciechanowiecki himself witnessed some of the systematic destruction of Polish art and culture by the Nazis. The first bombs fell on the Royal Castle in 1939 during the Siege of Warsaw, and were followed by the building’s systematic depradation and almost total destruction during the uprising in 1944. The National Library and several private libraries were burnt down and finally the entire city was razed to the ground.

This experience, doubtless sharpened by the total loss of his own family’s heritage over the past century-the contents of Boczejkow, the Ciechanowiecki country house in Byelorussia, were sent for safekeeping to Moscow in 1917 and have never been seen since, while the remains of the family’s townhouse in Warsaw, burnt out during the uprising, were bulldozed to make way for the Canadian Embassy in the 1950s – has given him a mission to repair his country’s plundered heritage.

A collector since boyhood, Ciechanowiecki began buying items of Polish historical or artistic interest when he moved to the west. Initially the purchases were modest – but few people collected Polish works of art in those days, and hardly anyone knew anything about them. Extraordinary pieces could sometimes be purchased from impoverished emigres, while others emerged mysteriously from Russia and Germany. As well as buying Polish works of art, Ciechanowiecki has also sought out French furniture, clocks and bronzes without a known Polish provenance but which reflect the taste of the Francophile Kings of Poland throughout the eighteenth century. Thus, thanks to nearly forty years of assiduous collecting, the Ciechanowiecki Foundation now owns some 3,000 objects, most of which are displayed in the restored apartments of Warsaw Castle. The Foundation’s collection includes portraits of Polish sitters by Mengs, Nattier, Graft, Subleyras, Vigee Lebrun, Bacciarelli, Lampi and Grassi; important Polish silver; French furniture, clocks and bronzes d’ameublement; medals; carpets and textiles (including no fewer than thirty richly woven silk sashes, a distinctive part of Polish patrician costume); sculpture, snuffboxes, miniatures, and objets de vertu; and one particularly significant Polish royal jewel. The foundation employs a full-time curator at Warsaw Castle to look after the collection and a comprehensive illustrated catalogue is in preparation.

New acquisitions are made from time to time, but because of an awakened interest in Polish culture, particularly in America, and a consequent rise in prices, these are now necessarily rather rare. Ciechanowiecki tells me, however, that the foundation keeps funds in reserve just in case some particularly significant Polish object appears on the market.

Ciechanowiecki’s admirable crusade to restore Poland’s cultural heritage has not gone unnoticed in his native land. In 1998 he was awarded the Order of the White Eagle, Poland’s highest honour and its equivalent to the Order of the Garter, while his eightieth birthday in September 2004 was marked by a special exhibition of treasures from the foundation’s collection. Let us hope that in the emerging prosperity of twenty-first century Poland, now a member of the European Community and once more taking her rightful place among western European nations, Ciechanowiecki’s example will inspire a new generation of patriot-collectors of Polonica.

This article was first published in the June 2005 issue of Apollo magazine.

One comment

  1. Like many who will read this article, I did not know Andrew, but I think the world was a better place for having him in it and he will be missed but for his legacy.

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