Culture Ministry orders return of state-owned artworks from abroad to avoid seizures in arbitration case

Emil Filla - 'Two Women', photo: Moravian gallery in Brno

The Czech Republic will bring back home state-owned artworks that are on loan abroad in an effort to avoid their seizure in a protracted arbitration case. The decision comes after an Austrian court last week upheld the claims of the Swiss firm Diag Human and seized three modernist artworks lent to a gallery in Vienna. The Czech Foreign Ministry considers any seizures of Czech property in breach of international law.

Emil Filla - 'Two Women',  photo: Moravian gallery in Brno
A Czech-owned painting by the French artist Eduard Manet on a long-term loan to a Paris gallery will be the first artwork to return home – if it is not in the meantime seized by French authorities.

Last week, a court in Vienna ordered the seizure of two modernist paintings by Emil Filla and Vincenc Beneš along with a statue by Otto Guttfreund in lieu of cash. The court upheld a claim by Diag Human, a Swiss dealer in blood plasma which demands around ten billion crowns, or over 587 million US dollars, from the Czech state in compensation for having allegedly thwarted its business in the country more than 15 years ago.

Shortly afterward, a lawyer for the Swiss firm announced that a court in Paris had upheld its claims as well, although no Czech property has to date been confiscated in France.

Czech officials claim the arbitration has not yet come to a final conclusion and do not recognize Diag Human’s claims. But Czech Culture Minister Jiří Besser ordered on Tuesday the return of the Manet painting for fears it could be seized in Paris.

Jiří Besser
At the same time, the ministry is reviewing all loan contracts with foreign galleries to see if they protect the artworks against this type of legal action. Mr Besser said on Wednesday that dozens of artworks worth around 14 million euro are likely to be returned to the Czech Republic.

Most state-owned artworks currently on loan abroad are part of the collections of Prague’s National Gallery. Its spokeswoman Petra Jungwirthová says they have received the minister’s order and will act accordingly.

“The situation is a little complicated. The National Gallery in Prague has very important works of art now in Austria and we are ready to do everything to respect the decision of Culture Minister Jiří Besser. Right now, I cannot give any more details because it is a sensitive issue, so I cannot really comment. But we are of course going to respect everything the Minister of Culture said.”

Czech Centre in Munich,  Germany
Works of art are not the only Czech property at risk of being impounded abroad in the drawn-out arbitration case. The buildings of Czech embassies and consulates are protected by international treaties – but such protection does not apply to the Czech Centres, a network promoting the Czech Republic in 21 countries of the world. In some cities like Paris and Berlin, they are located at prime addresses. The network’s director, Michael Pospíšil, says there is not much they can do against possible court-ordered seizures.

“Czech Centres have no means of protection because they themselves do not own the buildings. Wherever they are not located directly at Czech embassies, they use buildings that belong to the Czech state through the Foreign Ministry.”

In a statement, the Czech Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday it considered seizures of Czech property to be in breach of international law, although it mentioned no steps to prevent such actions in the future.