Michal Klepetář hauled out his six binders of correspondence, rulings, clippings and administrative records as he patiently summarized his view on a long-running dispute with the National Gallery, which entered a new phase April 19.
"Holocaust victims and their heirs have fewer rights than the rest of the Czech population," he said.
Klepetář and his brother Jan are the great-nephews and only living relatives of Richard and Regina Popper, a wealthy Brno couple who were Jewish patrons of the arts. The Nazis arrested and banished the pair to the Łódź ghetto, where they died in 1941 or 1942. Their collection of 125 Old Masters, including German, Dutch, French and Spanish works from the 16th to the 19th centuries - art valued at more than $50 million - was distributed among top Nazi brass, and at least eight of the works eventually found their way to Prague's National Gallery (See "Nazi-looted art in limbo," Sept. 9, 2004). An 18th-century Viennese marble and mahogany desk clock ended up at the Museum of Decorative Arts.
Klepetář has fought to reclaim the collection since 1992, but while he and his brother did win back buildings owned by the Poppers, courts have ruled they have no right to the art that once lined that building's walls.
Klepetář, in cooperation with Ed Fagan, a controversial American Holocaust restitution specialist, filed suit April 19 in a U.S. District Court in Florida, demanding the return of the art. The suit, seeking damages in the amount of the full value of the Popper collection, alleges Czech officials deliberately stonewalled the Klepetář claim.
"The Czech Republic is not clean," Fagan said. "They need to do a lot of things to fix restitution."
The Czech Republic was one of 40 countries that signed on to a 1998 agreement in Washington, D.C. pledging to return property looted during the war to its rightful owners. The conference, aimed at creating uniform international rules for such cases, led to a follow-up summit in 2009 at the former Terezín concentration camp in north Bohemia.
However, Czech government website Restitution-art.cz still lists 3,500 looted items in state hands, according to Anne Webber, a UK-based restitution expert.
Court rulings that have gone against Klepetář are based on a 2000 Holocaust claims law, which only allows direct descendants, siblings or spouses of Holocaust victims to reclaim art. Critics point out the deaths of many Holocaust victims and their relatives make such strict rules absurd.
Helena Krejčová, director of the Documentation Center for Property Transfers of Cultural Assets of World War II Victims - an organization set up after the 2009 Terezín conference - said her organization can do little to help Klepetář as courts have ruled the claim invalid.
Tomáš Kraus, executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Czech Republic, which helped legislators draft the 2000 law, said the problem is not the law.
"We are satisfied with the legislation," he said. "You need political will, and you need the will of the court. If you have an interest from anybody not to return whatever assets there are, you can find an excuse."
Fagan and Klepetář staged a press conference and visited the National Gallery and the Museum of Decorative Arts April 20, seeking a complete list of pieces from the Popper collection held by the state.
National Gallery Director Vladimír Rösel issued a statement April 23, echoing Krejčová's position on the court rulings, but added, "Some of the valuable works were apparently sold off at auction; others were lost under unknown circumstances."
Some Popper paintings were reclaimed after World War II from ethnic Germans under the Beneš Decrees, Rösel said, and "some images were then gradually transferred to the National Gallery in Prague."
"The former property of Richard Popper is clearly identified as eight works," he said.
Some 35 other Popper paintings are likely in the collections, but their status is "indeterminate," Rösel said.