Stolen Czech Jewish art to be returned

International Herald Tribune/AP 24 September 2008

PRAGUE, Czech Republic:
The Jewish Museum in Prague is ready to return a valuable art collection stolen during the Nazi occupation to the American relatives of its former owner, but the Americans will not be able to take some of the art out of the country, officials said Wednesday.

The collection of 32 paintings and drawings belonged to Emil Freund, a Jewish lawyer who was deported in 1941 from Prague to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland. He died there the following year.

Jewish Museum director Leo Pavlat said a deal has been reached to transfer the collection from the museum to the relatives. He was not able to say when the agreement would be signed.

"It is not an easy task to do to take over 32 art pieces of that kind," said Michaela Hajkova, a curator at the Jewish Museum.

Thirteen of the most valuable pieces were declared cultural treasures by the Czech Culture Ministry in 2002. That status prevents the artworks from being taken out of the country, so the new owners will have to leave them in the Czech Republic. And if the new owners want to sell the pieces, they must offer them first to the Czech state.

Culture Ministry officials have been negotiating with the owners-to-be in an effort to buy those 13 pieces, ministry spokesman Jan Cieslar said Wednesday. He said the ministry was ready to pay a sum that Auctioneer Christie's estimated the 13 pieces are worth. He did not say how much that is.

Critics, including Hajkova, said the paintings which include Paul Signac's "Riverboat on Seine" (1901) and work by Andre Derain and Maurice Utrillo would likely fetch more if auctioned abroad. The Signac alone is reportedly valued at almost US$2 million (€1.3 million). The critics feel the requirement that the pieces stay in the Czech Republic blocks the relatives from receiving proper restitution.

When Freund was transported to Poland, he left behind his art collection, which was seized by the Nazis. After the 1948 communist takeover, the collection came into the possession of the Czechoslovak state.

Freund's sisters, Berta Sieben and Olga Hoppen, who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s, made an unsuccessful attempt in 1949 to claim the collection.

Freund's great-great nephew, Gerald McDonald, and his two cousins, all U.S. citizens, made a more successful attempt to retrieve the pieces after a law was passed in 2000 in the Czech Republic that allows art stolen by the Nazis to be claimed by the original owners or their heirs.

McDonald has since died. He is survived by two children who are eligible to claim the collection together with the two cousins, said Hajkova, who initiated a search for Freund's relatives in the United States.

The Jewish Museum received the collection in 2000 from the National Gallery in Prague.
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