Brno City Hall protests as valuable Tugendhat Villa statue is sold to foreign collector

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A statue by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, which used to stand in the functionalist Tugendhat Villa in the Moravian capital of Brno, was sold to an anonymous bidder for one million pounds on Monday. The "Torso of a Walking Woman" was auctioned off at Sotheby's. But the decision to sell the art in London is now influencing decision-making in the Czech Republic, where Brno city councillors fear the Tugendhat Villa would face a similar fate if it were returned to its original owners.

Tugendhat Villa
The Tugendhat Villa, the only Czech example of modern architecture on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, is one of the country's most prized architectural gems. Built in the functionalist style by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the late 1920s, it showcases a unique concept of space and interior design. But their Jewish owners, Greta and Fritz Tugendhat, were only able to enjoy their new home for eight years. The Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia forced them to flee the country. While the valuable Wilhelm Lehmbruck statue was returned to the descendants of the Tugendhat family last year, the villa is still in the ownership of the City of Brno.

Last week, city councillors made a surprising declaration by saying all necessary steps would be taken to return the villa to its rightful owners. But this week's sale of the Lehmbruck statue has City Hall reconsidering. Spokesman Pavel Zara:

"The city of Brno was very disappointed to find out that the statue had been auctioned off to a foreigner and is no longer property of the Czech Republic. We do not fear that the villa will be sold but the sale of the statue signals that the fate of the villa may not meet our expectations. We want the building to undergo extensive reconstruction and we want it to remain open to the public so that visitors from this country and abroad can admire it."

Brno City Hall had hoped to have the statue declared Czech cultural heritage. It has also criticised the Tugendhats for auctioning the art off rather than selling it to the Moravian Gallery at a more affordable price.

"I definitely support the idea of returning property to former Jewish owners but in this case I think it was a very big mistake that we failed to get it listed as a part of our cultural heritage,"

...says Terezie Nekvidova of the scientific research department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague.

Surprised by the reaction of the city, the Tugendhat family stresses dealing with a statue cannot be compared to dealing with a building to which it is deeply connected. It notes that part of the proceeds of the auction would have been used to repair the villa if it were returned to the family. The results of this latest controversy around the Tugendhat villa will soon be clear as Brno city councillors are expected to make a final decision on the villa's fate next month.