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Around the Jewish World in Czech Republic, Victim’s Kin is Stymied by Art Restitution Law

Michal Klepetar would like to know how many paintings in the Czech Republic’s national gallery once belonged to his great-uncle, Richard Popper, who was murdered by the Nazis. But the National Gallery has refused to provide Klepetar with details about the collection, despite the many requests he has sent to its researchers, its director, Culture Minister Pavel Dostal and even former Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla.

Government institutions won’t deal with Klepetar because, according to the Holocaust Act of 2000, he is not a legitimate heir.

Only immediate kin of those murdered by the Nazis — brothers, sisters, wives, children, grandchildren and 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 are stricter than those for Czech inheritance laws, which would allow nephews and nieces to claim property as well.

Klepetar’s ineligibility to claim his great-uncle’s collection of Old Masters illustrates what some say is the Czech government’s Catch-22 legal reasoning about 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 real estate in Brno since 1992.

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

Jelinek, at the time an adviser to then President Vaclav Havel, was reading about the art collection of Richard Popper, a Brno-born Jew who died in Poland’s Lodz ghetto during the Nazi period.

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

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

“I was happily shocked,” said Klepetar, 58, a resident of Prague. “I had thought the paintings had been lost or destroyed.”

And then things went terribly wrong: He learned that according to the law, he was not entitled to even learn about the collection, much less claim it.

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 Czech 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 he 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.”

Richard Popper knew by 1940 that his art collection was in jeopardy. 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 works by 15th- to 19th-century Flemish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish painters.

The Nazis deported Popper to the Lodz ghetto in 1941, where he, his wife and his only daughter perished.

Documents show the collection most likely was taken over by 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 works from the collection were known to be in the hands of the state. However, only eight works from the Popper collection are listed on the Culture Ministry’s restitution Web site.

Based on her research, Hajkova said, she believes the 41 surviving works are probably in the National Gallery’s depositories, 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 that 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.”

Meanwhile, Klepetar and his brother Jan brought a lawsuit against the National Gallery to claim the Popper collection. A Prague 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, but said he expects it to take 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.”

Critics say the National Gallery’s attitude in the Klepetar case is representative of how the government deals with claimants of Nazi-confiscated art.

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

“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” 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.

Pavel Jirasek, director of the Culture Ministry’s department of movable cultural heritage, museums and galleries, 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,” he said.

Jirasek admitted that restitution is a thorny issue for the Czech Republic.

“Our collections were essentially nurtured by confiscation,” he said. “The legacy of the Holocaust is something all of Europe has to come to terms with.”

But 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,” she said. “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.”

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