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Jewish Museum Sues Czech Ministry over Collection of Nazi-looted Artworks

May 17, 2002
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Prague’s Jewish Museum is suing the Czech Ministry of Culture over its decision to restrict a U.S. citizen’s rights to artwork he is claiming under the country’s restitution laws.

The museum is challenging the ministry’s decision to declare part of an art collection once owned by Czech Jew Emil Freund — and now in the museum’s possession — as “national treasures.”

Gerald McDonald, a Vietnam war veteran from Chicago, was identified late last year as heir to Freund’s collection.

But the ministry’s decision prevents him from removing 15 pieces of artwork from the Czech Republic.

The art, which was looted by the Nazis during the war, includes works by French artists Andre Derain, Maurice Vlaminck, Maurice Utrillo, Charles Dufresne and Paul Signac, as well as pieces by leading Czech and Slovak artists.

The museum’s lawsuit will be heard by the High Court in Prague.

The suit will argue that the ministry, by designating works of art as “national treasures” before they are restituted, clashes with a law passed in 2000 alleviating property-related injustices caused by the Holocaust.

It further argues that artworks that may be restituted to potential heirs “are, on the whole, purposefully designated as national treasures, which means that transferees are restricted in the disposal of their restituted assets.”

The museum also claims that “such a procedure is counter to basic ethics and to the democratic legal system.”

Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum in Prague, told JTA that the Ministry of Culture had initiated the process of declaring the art national treasures a month before the museum received them.

“All these pieces of art were kept by the national gallery for almost 50 years, and all of a sudden, a month before we received them, the Ministry of Culture asked to value them as a national treasure,” he said.

“It seems to me that it has been done with the intention to prevent the heirs from freely using the art according to their will,” Pavlat added.

The Culture Ministry denied the accusation.

“The declaration was the result of a long process that started long before any heirs emerged,” ministry spokeswoman Dita Fuchsova said.

Milan Knizak, director of the National Gallery, said designating works as national treasures was a matter for the Ministry of Culture to decide, but added that he believed the laws on art restitution were generally fair.

“The fact is that after years under Communism, people don’t know the value of things. The law on art restitution is, I think, reasonable.”

But some Jews feel let down by the whole Czech system of art restitution. They direct their criticism at legislators, courts and state officials alike.

Prague real estate consultant Michal Klepetar has been fighting for 10 years to recover the estate of his Jewish great uncle Richard Popper, who owned property in Brno and several dozen paintings, many of which are currently held in the country’s National Gallery.

His case was thrown out of the Czech courts because, he claims, the judge misinterpreted a 1994 amendment to a three-year-old Czech restitution law that allowed Holocaust-era claims to be heard for the first time.

“After the 1991 restitution law, Jewish people had to wait more than three years for justice,” he said.

“Even now, however, the court system continues to show that it is anti-restitution and in some cases anti-Semitic,” he added.

Last year, Klepetar lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the court itself could have resolved the issue of restitution more effectively “a long time ago.”

Klepetar’s lawyer, Milan Hulik, is also fighting the Czech courts on behalf of a Jewish family that lodged a claim five years ago for a local factory taken over by the Nazis during the war.

He says the case has been particularly difficult because the courts ruled against the family, in favor of the son of one of the men who allegedly took over the factory during the war.

“The problem with the courts in the Czech Republic is that they are not accountable, even to the higher courts,” he said.

“In the case of the factory, the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic ruled in our favor and passed it back to the lower court. They simply ignored it and ruled against us again.”

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