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Nazi-looted art in limbo

1970
1945
The Prague Post 9 September 2004
Dinah A Spritzer and Dan Macek

Loophole in Holocaust Act prevents return of collection to heir


About five years ago the current head of Prague's Jewish Community, Tomas Jelinek, received quite a jolt when he was reviewing a government committee's papers on art looted by the Nazis.

Jelinek, then adviser to ex-President Vaclav Havel, was reading about the art collection of Richard Popper, a Brno-born Jew who was murdered by the Nazis in Poland's Lodz ghetto.

Jelinek realized that the Popper case pertained to someone he knew well -- a fellow member of the Prague Jewish Community, Michal Klepetar, Popper's great-nephew.

The committee report stated that at least some of Popper's Old Masters collection was probably somewhere in the National Gallery. Jelinek alerted Klepetar to the committee's findings.

"I was happily shocked," said the 58-year-old Klepetar, a resident of Prague. "I had thought the paintings had been lost or destroyed."

And then things went terribly wrong.

The National Gallery refused to provide Klepetar with any details about the collection, despite his many requests sent to its researchers, its director, Culture Minister Pavel Dostal and even former Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla.

No government institution will deal with Klepetar because according to the Holocaust Act of 2000, he is not a legitimate heir.

Only direct "descendants" of those murdered by the Nazis -- brothers, sisters, wives, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren -- are allowed by law to claim art that was stolen by Hitler's henchmen and then taken over by the state. The Holocaust Act restitution criteria is stricter than Czech inheritance laws, which would allow nephews and nieces to claim property.

Klepetar's ineligiblity to claim the collection of Old Masters illustrates what some say is the Catch-22 legal reasoning of the Czech government with regard to the restitution of looted art.

"The law completely ignores the fact that a genocide occurred, a genocide that makes it highly unlikely that direct descendants would even exist," said Klepetar, who lives in Prague and has waged a battle in Czech courts for the return of his family's property in Brno since 1992.

The Czech Republic is one of the few countries in Europe with a specific act dealing with art looted by the Nazis. The act is unique in that it opened up the possibility of restitution to those living outside the country.

The Holocaust Act followed the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-era assets at which European governments agreed to help restore looted art to the families of those who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

In 2000, the Culture Ministry placed a list of 3,700 objects on a Web site, www.restitution-art.cz, and has returned 800 works of art to Jewish heirs.

Pavel Rychetsky, chairman of the constitutional court and a former justice minister, worked on the committee that drafted the Holocaust Act and defended its application.

"The Czech Holocaust law is so far the farthest reaching in Europe and goes farther than earlier restitution laws in that it doesn't require that claimants be Czech citizens," Rychetsky said.

But Jelinek said that in the case of Klepetar, the law has enabled "the absolute failure of a system that should provide necessary and immediate information for those who want to make restitution."

The Popper collection

Richard Popper knew by 1940 that his art collection was in jeopardy and records show that he deposited it with a Prague auction house, according to Michaela Hajkova, a curator with the Jewish Museum in Prague who produced a report on the collection for the Rychetsky committee.

An inventory from 1940 puts the collection at 127 15th- to 19th-century works by Flemish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish painters.

The Nazis deported Popper to Poland's Lodz ghetto in 1941 and he, his wife and his only daughter perished there.

Documents show the collection was most likely taken over by the Nazi authorities in 1942. A Nazi collaborator told the Czechoslovak government after the war that the SS special police and others under Nazi command probably stole many of the works for themselves.

In 1950 the Czechoslovak government wrote that 41 known works of the collection were in the hands of the state.

There are only eight works belonging to the Popper collection listed on the Culture Ministry's restitution Web site.

Hajkova said that, based on her research, she believes the 41 surviving works are probably in the depositories of the National Gallery but that they were poorly documented as they passed through many hands and would require an expert to identify them.

Ales Pejchal, attorney for the National Gallery, said since Klepetar is not a legal heir, he sees no reason to treat him like one and facilitate his research. But he added that as a lawyer, he would have expected the Holocaust Act "to include a wider definition of what an heir is."

Klepetar, meanwhile, has along with his brother Jan brought a lawsuit against the National Gallery to claim the Popper collection. A Prague 1 Court ruled in January that his claim could not be evaluated because he did not present a specific list of the holdings he was seeking. After the ruling was upheld in March by a Prague district court Klepetar petitioned the Supreme Court and expects it will be two years before a verdict is returned. "I don't have a lawyer and I am doing all this myself," he said, leafing through the hundreds of pages he has collected on his case.

"There is something very wrong with the country if I cannot even find out about whether the National Gallery has these paintings," he said.

Attitude problem

The attitude of the National Gallery in the Klepetar case is representative in many ways of how the government deals with claimants of Nazi-confiscated art, according to critics.

Hajkova said she suspects Czech government officials wanted to look good in the eyes of human-rights advocates and world Jewry after the 1998 Washington Conference and so they created the Holocaust Act, but she says the procedures needed to assist claimants are far from satisfactory.

"Families looking for art write the Culture Ministry, which tells them to contact the relevant institution. Then the museum or gallery tells them they have to contact the Culture Ministry. There is no system of accountability," Hajkova said.

She also claimed the state labeled certain works of art in a restitution case she dealt with, the Emil Freund collection, as "national treasures" in order to prevent them from being taken out of the country. The Culture Ministry said the "national treasure" label was applied before the works were the subject of restitution and were not intended to block the claim.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said she knows of no other European country where being a "direct descendant" of a Holocaust victim is a prerequisite for filing a claim.

"If the Czech government accepts that the way to deal with looted art is restitution, then it must create principles to make sure that restitution occurs. It has to eliminate the obstacles to the process," she said.

Webber has handled several restitution cases involving the Czech Republic. In 2002 she helped return the extensive Arthur Feldmann collection of drawings from the Moravian Gallery to the original owner's heirs in Israel.

"In the Czech Republic it is virtually impossible for families to get information. We have written to museums and have asked about what family a specific piece of art was taken from and we do not get answers," she said.

Pavel Jirasek, director of the department of movable cultural heritage, museums and galleries at the Culture Ministry, said the government is making every effort to return art that belonged to Jewish families.

Jirasek added that gallery and museum directors were wary of false claims, recalling the case of some Sudeten Germans who were seeking restitution. "The directors bear full responsibility for turning over art and they do not want to make a mistake, so it is not surprising that they sometimes want an independent court to decide a case.

Jirasek admitted that restitutions are a thorny issue for the country. "Our collections were essentially nurtured by confiscation. The legacy of the Holocaust is something all of Europe has to come to terms with."

Looted Art

Art stolen by the Nazis that is in state possession

  • Number of objects listed on Culture Ministry Web site, www.restitution-art.cz: 3,700 *
  • Number of objects returned to heirs of Nazi victims since passage of Holocaust Act in 2000: 800
  • Number of claims for art made from state-run museums or galleries since the passage of Holocaust Act: Four to five
  • Number of Czechoslovak Jews killed in Holocaust: Approximately 80,000

    *An object, such as a porcelain set, can consist of several items. The total number of items is 6,700.

    Source: Culture Ministry, Terezin Studies and Documents



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