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.