A Polish count laid claim on Wednesday to a medieval cross fished out of a trash container in Austria, saying it had been stolen from his family by the Nazis.
Count Adam Zamoyski said photographic and archival evidence left no doubt that the cross was the one held by his ancestors at the Goluchow Castle in Poland before World War II. The item was found by a woman rooting through the discarded belongings of a deceased hotel owner in western Austria in 2004, but it was not until last month that it was taken to an Austrian museum for valuation.
Experts estimated that the medieval French cross is worth US$500,000. But Zamoyski told the press neither he nor the other heirs to the treasure would sell it, saying his ancestors wanted the cross on public display.
"Ultimately we intend to take it back to Poland and place it on show, because that was the aim of the collection," he said. "We feel that we're more custodians of our ancestors' wishes rather than taking it to a sale room and flogging it and having a nice holiday."
The cross was acquired by Zamoyski's relatives, the Czartoryski family, in the 19th century, but was among the thousands of pieces of art plundered by the Nazis during World War II. Zamoyski, who now serves as the chairman of the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, where the family's collection is kept, has spent years tracking the missing artwork across Europe and the US.
Most of the pieces have been recovered, but some of the most valuable items, including a self-portrait by Raphael, have yet to be found, Zamoyski said.
But Zamoyski, who lives in London, said the accidental discovery confirmed his belief that many more pieces from the collections might still be in western Austria, explaining that residents might have helped themselves to a stash of Nazi loot left there in the waning days of the war without necessarily knowing its true worth.
"I'm convinced there must be dozens of things still there," Zamoyski said. "We hope that maybe this will be a spur for other people to look through [their attics] rather than throwing things into the rubbish bin."
He said he didn't know how long it would take to retrieve the cross, which has being held in the Austrian museum for safekeeping. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which he said was handling the effort to have the cross returned, did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Poland's government has written independently to Austria's government to ask for the return of the artifact, Culture Ministry spokesman Jan Kasprzyk said. He said he expected a response from Austria within the next few weeks.