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Polish government cheers bargain da Vinci purchase

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s government announced on Thursday it had bought a Leonardo da Vinci painting from a private foundation, in a transaction that forced a federal budget amendment and stirred acrimony about how the deal was arranged.

Leonardo da Vinci "Lady with an Ermine" painting is presented at an exhibition in Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow, Poland May 11, 2012. Picture taken on May 11, 2012. Agencja Gazeta/Michal Lepecki/via REUTERS

The State Treasury bought the 1490 “Lady with an Ermine” along with thousands of other pieces of art from the aristocratic Czartoryski Foundation for the equivalent of just over 100 million euros ($105 million). “It is a fraction of the market price of the collection,” Piotr Glinski, Poland’s minister of culture told journalists.

The government bought the collection, which includes Rembrandt’s “Landscape with the Good Samaritan”, as part of its broader drive to nationalise important businesses and cultural artefacts.

But the management board of the Czartoryski Foundation has resigned, saying it was not consulted about the purchase.

The da Vinci painting is on public display at the Wawel castle in Krakow.

The year-old government, led by the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), has long talked of buying the “Lady with an Ermine” and more than 80,000 items in the private collection, considered one of Europe’s most important.

“I felt like making a donation,” the Foundation’s president and founder, Adam Czartoryski said, when asked why was he was willing to part with the collection for so little. “It’s my choice.”

The Foundation’s board of management said it did not oppose selling the collection to the government but that selling without due diligence, which would provide the basis for estimating a fair price, may be against its bylaws.

Marian Wolkowski-Wolski, chairman of the board, told Reuters the board was also worried the collection was being sold at a fraction of its worth and that there was a risk of its eventual dispersal out of public control.

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Polish media have reported that the government had been willing to spend up to 1 billion zloty ($235 million) on buying the painting and the entire collection.

The Da Vinci painting, 54.7 cm by 40.3 cm (1’9” by 1’3”), is insured for 331 million euros for travelling, according to government officials, and the entire collection is valued, according to different estimates, at between 8 billion zloty and 10 billion zloty (2.3 billion euros, $2.4 billion).

The government’s budget is squeezed but it expects to undershoot its deficit goal this year. This has enabled a budget amendment to allow the formation of a reserve pool for the purpose of “purchase of cultural goods, including historical monuments, and the rights to cultural goods with a special importance for the Polish State”.

In 1991, after the fall of Communism, Adam Czartoryski established the Foundation in Krakow and, for financial and logistical reasons, left the collection amassed over two centuries under the National Museum structure.

Minister of Culture Piotr Glinski said the whole collection would now become a permanent part of the Museum.

“This ensures the right of the Polish nation to the collection,” Glinski told journalists. “There is a difference between having something on deposit and being its owner.”

The last painting attributed to da Vinci to go on sale, “Salvator Mundi” in 2014, was variously reported to have fetched a sum ranging between $75 million and $127.5 million.

($1 = 0.9540 euros)

($1 = 4.2145 zlotys)

Additional reporting by Marcin Goclawski and Pawel Sobczak; Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Ruth Pitchford