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Clarksville couple makes big splash in Poland's art scene

Dan and Louise Runion of Clarksville may be humble antiques and art dealers working out of a bedroom-size cubicle in Frederick, but they're big in Poland.

Lately they've been featured in Polish newspapers, television and radio, and were welcomed by the Polish ambassador in Washington for a champagne toast as thanks for donating six lithographs by an artist who became prominent in Europe between the world wars.

Chalk it up to charity, accident and a discerning eye for art.

"This was one of those remarkable finds," said Louise Runion. "Probably the most remarkable" of their years as antiques and art dealers, an interest they resumed as a retirement venture a couple of years ago after other careers: hers as a high school art teacher/artist, his as an electrical engineer.

"I just saw these all lying on a table," said Dan, who bought the six framed pieces for $110 at an estate auction in Westminster in December 2011.

"I thought, 'They're telling some kind of story.' "

The color lithographs by Zofia Stryjenska — once dubbed the "Princess of Polish Art" by a Polish historian — tell more than one story. The images show an array of traditional costumes and customs, but their recovery and the fanfare surrounding it speak to the damage Polish culture suffered under the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

"We are delighted every time a missing piece of art returns to Poland," Ryszard Schnepf, the Polish ambassador, said in an email. "All the more so when the return is not a result of lengthy legal proceedings or court battles, but a heartfelt gift from people who understand the importance of Polish cultural heritage."

Dan Runion wasn't thinking about anything so grand when he spotted the lithographs. He'd gone to the Westminster auction to see what he could find, as he and his wife were just a few weeks into getting their new business going in a booth of about 150 square feet at Emporium Antiques in downtown Frederick.

Something about the images caught his eye. They were not like anything he'd seen before.

"The colors were very vibrant. It was intriguing. I wanted to know more about it," Dan said. "I didn't understand them when I first saw them at the auction."

Neither did the auctioneer, evidently. The lithographs were labeled as Nativity scenes, although they contain no biblical imagery.

Each is signed by Stryjenska and titled with the name of a region of Poland, and shows a stylized image of a particular local custom: harvest season in one, hunting and fishing in two others. One shows a man dancing around a campfire.

Dan first bid $90. Another bidder countered with $100. Dan went to $110.

That was it — it was over in about five minutes. A bargain, Dan thought, considering what appeared to be relatively recent framing, with double mats.

"That's what crossed my mind: 'There's more than that in the frames,' " he said.

He came home with an assortment of stuff from the auction — and a few questions about those lithographs.

He could read the signature and did an Internet search of the name "Stryjenska." After finding out she was Polish, he and Louise asked neighbor Anetta Grabowska-Van Haagen, a native of Poland who speaks the language, to come by for a look.

Grabowska-Van Haagen had heard the name Zofia Stryjenska. She didn't know much about her, but she recognized that the prints could be significant artifacts of Polish culture.

According to four articles on Stryjenska published in Polish since 1991 and cited in a Wikipedia entry, the artist was born in Krakow in 1891 and worked as a painter, illustrator, graphic and stage designer, reaching the height of her recognition in Poland and Western Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1930, the Polish government awarded her the Order of Polonia Restituta for achievements in culture, five years after her work was well received at the World Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris, according to Schnepf. Among civilian honors, he said, the Order of Polonia Restituta is "second only to the rarely awarded Order of the White Eagle."

In 1936, Stryjenska was nominated for the Golden Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature but declined the honor.

After World War II, she also declined to join the Union of Polish Artists, an organization connected to the Communist Party, thus becoming persona non grata in her own country. She left Poland after the war and eventually settled in Geneva, where she died in 1976.

Schnepf said the first exhibition of Stryjenska's works since the war was staged in 2008 at the National Museum in Krakow, and later traveled to Warsaw and Poznan. In 2011, the National Bank of Poland made her the subject of a commemorative coin.

As well established as Stryjenska's reputation is, the Runions were not sure the lithographs would draw much interest at their sales booth. Grabowska-Van Haagen suggested they consider donating them to a museum in Poland.

"We didn't give any serious consideration to selling them," Dan Runion said, and so they never had the lithographs appraised. "Frankly, I don't want to know what they're worth."

"How do you put a number on history or heritage?" Grabowska-Van Haagen said.

The Polish Embassy could not estimate their monetary value, but Schnepf said they were certainly desirable.

"Over the years, works of Zofia Stryjenska became dispersed, and complete sets of prints, such as the one donated by Mr. and Mrs. Runion, are a rarity," he said.

It's not clear how the prints got to that auction in Westminster, or whether they might be included in artwork that Schnepf said was "looted from our country" during and after World War II.

But Schnepf sees the donation in the context of the Polish government's effort to restore such losses, including about three-quarters of prewar library collections and more than 90 percent of the contents of central government archives.

"Few countries suffered cultural losses on a scale comparable to that of Poland," he said.

Once Dan Runion contacted the Polish Embassy about the prints in May, officials moved relatively quickly to set up the donation to the National Museum in Krakow.

On Aug. 7, the Runions and Grabowska-Van Haagen went to Washington for a ceremony conducted in an elegant high-ceiling room with pale blue walls. The floor was covered with an Oriental rug, the walls hung with Polish art.

Some 10 or 15 reporters, videographers and photographers from the Polish news media were there for the ceremony, as Schnepf thanked the Runions and presented them with a plaque and a certificate of an Amicus Poloniae — "Friend of Poland" — an award given to United States citizens to acknowledge their contribution to Polish-American relations.

"We were sort of out of our element with all of this, the pomp and ceremony," Dan Runion said, but they enjoyed it nonetheless.

"It was very exciting," he said. "It's the best $110 we ever spent."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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