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Christie’s of London Agrees Not to Sell Czech Jewish Art

Christie’s, the prestigious London auction house, has agreed to suspend plans to sell items from the collection of the Czech State Jewish Museum in Prague.

The proposed sale of Judaica, from the collection known to Americans as “A Precious Legacy,” was staved off through intervention by the World Jewish Congress.

The managing director of Christie’s, David Allison, wrote that Christie’s, as signator to a voluntary Code of Practice of British Auctioneers and Antiques Trade Associations, would not “offer for sale items which have left their country of origin other than in accordance with the law of that country.”

The case is one of heirless Jewish property, said Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director.

The Jewish artifacts, used regularly by the Jews who lived in Czechoslovakia for a thousand years, were confiscated by the Nazis and placed in storage for what they had intended would be a museum “on the extinct Jewish race.”

Part of the collection toured the United States in 1984 and 1985, including stops at the Jewish Museum in New York and at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

None of the proposed items for auction were part of the displays of the Czech State Jewish Museum or other museums, but were in storage, said Allison of Christie’s. Allison wrote that it is common for museums worldwide to offer for sale items that are not on display or are “surplus.”

SELLING HERITAGE FOR CURRENCY

In Czechoslovakia’s case, “the museums are very short of funds, both for new acquisitions and for such basic equipment as humidifiers, and the possibility of raising funds by the sale of unwanted items was naturally attractive,” he wrote.

In September, Christie’s was invited by Art Centrum, the Czech government agency then responsible for museums, to send representatives to visit six national museums, including the Jewish State Museum.

They were to consider making lists of items from the various collections for a public auction that would be held next fall.

The plan to sell off items of the state museums of Czechoslovakia came to light in November, after it was reported in the weekly cultural publication of the Czech Communist Party. The announcement raised concern that the country would voluntarily sell its own heritage in exchange for badly needed hard currency.

WJC leaders who visited Prague in November discussed the matter with government officials, said Steinberg. Within two weeks of their visit, Czechoslovakia’s Communist government had fallen.

The change in government climate “certainly had an effect,” Steinberg said.

Both Steinberg and Mark Talisman, Washington representative of the Council of Jewish Federations, who negotiated the U.S. tour of “A Precious Legacy,” reported that the Czech Jewish community now has greater representation on the board of the State Jewish Museum.

Talisman, who met with a curator of another Czech museum last month, said that the Jewish community will share responsibility equally with the museum’s board.

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