Preventing Restitution In the Czech Republic
where they are applying a new Restitution law

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 26 Mar 2001 Article by Stephan TEMPL

Translation by Marion Koebner

Prague, in March

"Central Europe" is a fiction which, thanks to confusion, is becoming reality. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer is an irritation long after his death. The polyglot sugar industrialist, born in Jungbunzlau, who commuted between his palace in Vienna and his Bohemian castle, was more than just one of those aristocrats who outlived the collapse of the Danube Monarchy. He remained true to Judaism out of conviction. In 1918, much to the annoyance of Ringstrasse society who remained loyal to the Kaiser, he chose the nationality of the modern industrial state, so full of promise, Czechoslovakia. His wife Adele, immortalised by Gustav Klimt, made it possible for him to have a genuine and deep confrontation with the philosophy and representatives of Social Democracy (Julius Tandler, Renner). He was aware of the fiction of his existence and of the irritation caused by the smaller Central European states.

In 1938 and 1940 respectively, his fortune, including his famous Viennese art collection, was confiscated. He spent the last seven years of his life in a Zurich hotel room, while his castle (Schloss Jungfern) to the north of Prague became Reinhard Heydrich's residence. The German State Railway Authority occupied the Vienna Residenz situated immediately opposite the Academy of Visual Arts.

When Bloch-Bauer died in 1945, his only bequest to his heirs was a crystal clear draft restitution claim. 56 years of democracy in Austria have hardly altered this - very little was restored to his family.

In Prague they were just reinforcing the 1953 Stalinist decrees: the heirs were not Czechs, but rather Germans. The attached declaration proves it: All three heirs were born in Vienna. Maria Altmann is an American citizen, Robert Bentley is Canadian and Louise Gattin is Yugoslav.

They have remained true to this logic. When it comes to restitution of real property, Czech nationality is a prerequisite. This is not the case for the transfer of works of art expropriated between September 1938 and April 1945. Retention of the looted property is assured by different methods: Only direct descendants are entitled to claim. So last autumn, the Prague National Gallery bypassed the heirs of the childless Emil Freund who was murdered in Lodz - by restoring the collection (Signac, Derain, Utrillo and many other leading works of modern art) to the original expropriator, the Nazi-Treuhandstelle (Trust) which had handed over the collection to the Prague Jewish Museum in 1944. The current curator of this Institution, Michaela Hajkova, is fully aware of the dubiousness of this transaction, as well as of the considerable doubt surrounding other parts of its collection. Because a large proportion of the highly valuable exhibits in the Museum were stolen from the Jewish communities of Moravia, Bohemia and Silesia during the Second World War and brought to Prague.

The Museum agrees with the concept of restitution. Tomas Haas had to litigate for years in his attempt to have restored to him the paintings his father Friedrich Taussig - known by his artist's nom de plume as Fritta - created in Theresienstadt. Tomas, who experienced the liberation of the concentration camp as a four year old, knew about the works of his father hidden in the walls of the fortification.

Most claimants would however be referred the lists of assets created by the Nazis. The Czech authorities keep these under lock and key because they contain too much explosive information. There, apart from real property and works of art, are listed bank and savings accounts and insurance policies. In this way, the Culture Ministry can speak confidently about 7000 looted works of art (including those by Rembrandt, Klimt, Kokoschka and Mucha) in Czech museums. In part they are listed on the Internet ( with confusing dimensions, without specifying the original owner. No one has so far started a search for the heirs.

Everything points to the fact that once again the Central European application of restitution practice is coming to the fore. The only ones with any chance of success are those who are aware of the existence of the looted works of art and who can afford the legal fees required to litigate at length. Otherwise they need to be able to conduct their own cases as has Uri Peled, the heir of the Brno lawyer and art collector Arthur Feldmann, who undertook his own investigations over many years and maintained continuous pressure.

Arthur Federer, heir and descendant of the well-known industrialist and art collector Oskar Federer, has been attempting to do just this for the last decade. His collection today forms the core of the Ostrau Gallery of Visual Arts. What chances does this claimant think he has? He is only too aware of the statement - by no means devoid of antisemitic prejudice - by the then Czech President Edvard Benes, made in 1944 in London to the representatives of the Czechoslovak Jews: "After all this we could not possibly restitute the entire Main Street of Moravia-Ostrau."