After four decades of struggle, heirs of Czech collector win back some art

JTA 28 March 2003
By Pavla Kozakova

PRAGUE: The Israeli heirs of a Czech Jewish art lover, whose works were looted by the Nazis in 1939, have won a 40-year battle to win back a large portion of his unique collection of drawings.

Legal representatives for the descendants of Brno-based lawyer Arthur Feldmann recently signed a restitution agreement that will return 135 drawings by Dutch, Italian and German masters from the 16th to the 18th centuries, which currently are held in the Moravian Gallery.

“We are very moved that thanks to the Czech authorities the drawings have now been returned to our ownership after so many years,” the family said in a statement released by Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which has negotiated for the past two years for the return of the works on behalf of the family.

The heirs, who said they had pursued the return of the works in memory of their art-loving grandfather, have asked to remain anonymous.

“The Feldmann restitution is a measure of the commitment of the Czech government and the Moravian Gallery to right the wrongs of the Nazi era, which are still so vividly felt,” Webber said.

Feldmann was a passionate collector who started collecting drawings in the early 1900s, including works attributed to Titian, Rubens and Rembrandt.

In 1934 Feldmann sold a small number of drawings, one of which is now in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York.

He began rebuilding his collection immediately after the sale. However, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and Feldmann’s collection, by now numbering some 750 drawings, was confiscated.

In March 1941 Feldmann was arrested and sentenced to death. He later died as a result of torture, according to his family.

In January 1942 his wife was deported to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. She never returned.

Feldmann’s two sons survived the war, and their children now live in Israel.

After the war Feldmann’s descendants launched a search for the remnants of the collection, and in the 1960s discovered a number of his works in the Moravian Gallery in Brno.

The family tried and failed to retrieve them during the Communist era. Their hopes of successfully claiming the works faded again in 1995, when the Czech courts rejected their restitution claim on the grounds that the works were seized before the legally set time limit of 1948.

The family’s hopes revived in 2000 when a new law was passed allowing some pre-1948 claims. They asked the nonprofit, London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe to take up their case, and the commission renewed negotiations with the state and the Moravian Gallery.

In late 2002, they were informed that their claim had been accepted.

Tomas Kraus, executive director of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, welcomed the successful outcome of the family’s long battle, calling it a case of “moral satisfaction.”

Pointing out that this was only the third successful restitution of art works in the Czech Republic since the law was changed in 2000, Kraus said he appreciated that the law clearly worked in practice.

The significance of Feldmann’s collection has been recognized by the Moravian Gallery, which has offered, with the consent of the Ministry of Culture, to purchase the five most important works for about $160,000. Webber said the family was considering the offer and would “respond in due course.”

The Commission has a further five cases of art restitution pending in the Czech Republic, according to Webber, whose organization last year successfully submitted a claim to the British Museum in London relating to four Old Master drawings also once owned by Feldmann and looted in Brno in 1939.

Webber is currently negotiating with Czech officials to obtain an export license for the drawings.

“We very much hope that there will be no problems or delay getting the license,” she said, but Kraus warned that it might turn out to be a complicated bureaucratic process.

“Now we must wait for an export permit, which we hope to receive very soon,” the family said. “Only then can the drawings be truly regarded as restituted, and our grandfather can rest in peace.”
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