Seeking rightful owners
Law and technology offer hope to Holocaust survivors' families who look to regain property
By James Pitkin
When the Jewish industrialist Oskar Federer escaped from Nazi-held Czechoslovakia in 1939, he managed to take a few of his loved ones with him.
Not relatives. His wife and kids were already safely in Canada. Rather, Federer smuggled out four of his favorite paintings from his extensive collection of European art.
Today they're all that remain of the once-rich Federer collection. The rest, stolen by the Nazis, eventually ended up in museums as far away as Amsterdam. But about 60 stayed in Czechoslovakia and became national property after the communists came to power.
Now his grandson Andrew, 38, an investment banker in Toronto, wants them back.
"Because of everything that happened to our family," he says, "we have very little to trace back to our roots. Those paintings are a tie to our past and to my grandparents, who unfortunately I got to spend very little time with."
But his attempt to reclaim the works in 1991 failed -- according to the law, only Czech citizens were eligible for restitution of Nazi loot. It was a blow that left Federer stunned.
"I thought it would be a fairly straightforward thing," he says. "I was surprised that they acknowledged [my right to the paintings] but still denied my claim. ... We've gotten absolutely zero."
Now hope has been rekindled for Federer and others whose families were forced to flee the Holocaust. A law passed last May for the first time makes non-Czechs eligible to reclaim their families' heritage, plundered by the Nazis, from national galleries and museums. The Culture Ministry has even set up an Internet database, located at www.restitution-art.cz, to help them identify and locate their lost treasures.
The Web site features more than 2,500 individual works of art from museums and galleries across the country. In all, some 7,000 are up for grabs under the new legislation, including valuable works by Alfons Mucha, Gustav Klimt, Rembrandt and Oskar Kokoschka.
Despite the wealth that stands to be lost, state officials aren't concerned that the value of the nation's artistic heritage will be seriously diminished.
"I'm not worried," says Pavel Jirasek, director of museums and galleries at the Culture Ministry. "We have about 60 million pieces in all -- we're talking about 7,000 here. There is a moral necessity to return these goods; that's more important to us than the value of the art."
But some individual galleries and museums will be hit hard. The Moravian Gallery in Brno, for example, stands to lose a valuable group of Old Masters drawings. And the Gallery of Fine Art in Ostrava, which houses 20 paintings originally from the Federer collection, will be left with a gaping hole.
"We've been building our collection since the '60s with this group of paintings," says Petr Beranek, the gallery's director. "If we lose the Federer works, then our modern European art is gone."
While some collections may dwindle, others are swelling. The Jewish Museum in Prague has already received more than 60 works that originally belonged to Holocaust victims. Ironically, the Nazis themselves bequeathed them to the museum before the artworks were nationalized by the communists in 1950.
Despite the return of these works, officials at the Jewish Museum are concerned that ambiguities in the law and a lack of procedural regulations will complicate the recovery of many others.
One difficulty lies in cases where works are labeled as a "gift" to a gallery or museum. In many cases, Jews gave over their possessions as bribes in order to leave the country, or were forced to "donate" them under duress. Tomas Kraus, general secretary of the Federation of Jewish communities, is worried that the government may be loath to return such works.
"I hope it's over now, but there were signs in the beginning that they weren't willing to return these things," he says. "How could someone have free will when they were a Jew in 1941?"
So far, according to the Culture Ministry's Jirasek, the government has received no claims under the new law. The Jewish Museum, which plans to negotiate for some individuals, has not yet launched any claims because they say proper channels have not yet been established to process them.
Michaela Hajkova, a curator for the Jewish Museum, is especially frustrated by the delay. After spending over 10 months sorting through the country's art collections and researching individual cases, she's anxious to begin returning the loot.
"There are no claimants at this time because there is not an institution that would consider them," she said. "We're waiting for the Culture Ministry to create a department or institution to deal with this. They promised they would do so, but obviously it hasn't happened yet."
Confusion does seem to abound regarding procedure. Officials at the Culture Ministry indicated that the decision to return works lies with the galleries and museums. But gallery directors say they don't have that authority.
"It's quite clear that we as the gallery are not the owners," says Katerina Tlachova, assistant to the director of the Moravian Gallery in Brno. "We're taking care of state property. If we have to return something it should be up to the court."
But despite all the potential legal wrangles, Federer is determined to see his grandfather's property back in the family.
"My family has always had a great love of art," he says "It's something that's been passed from generation to generation, and I hope that will continue with my children."
James Pitkin may be reached at
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