Nazi-era looted art may be returned after six-decade quest for retribution

Auguste Renoir 'Nude in the Country' 1920, an 'heirless' painting transferred from the Czech National Gallery to the Jewish Museum

Art looted from Jewish Holocaust victims is a yet-unclosed chapter in the history of the Czech Lands. After the Gestapo and Communist regime took their share of the artwork, the Czech government is now trying to deal with what's left, as Tricia Deering reports.

Historians call it the biggest art theft of the 20th century. A heist which made theft legal.

Adolf Hitler ordered his henchmen to inspect the looted goods in each occupied country during World War II, to select Aryan-appropriate paintings for the gallery he planned to erect in Linz.

Auguste Renoir 'Nude in the Country' 1920,  an 'heirless' painting transferred from the Czech National Gallery to the Jewish Museum
Czechoslovakia was no exception. 1,000s of other paintings not earmarked for Linz faced other fates and are still missing. Some paintings hit the auction block, where vultures descended from around the globe, to snatch up goods stolen from Jews who would perish in the Holocaust.

"There were several institutions which collected the artwork and we have discovered also several institutions not only in the so-called protectorate, Bohemia and Moravia, not only in Germany, but also for instance in Switzerland. There were several envoys who came here and bought the artwork, even knowing it was looted. The names of the galleries and even the people are in the study. This was a surprise for most of us, and it's not the end of the story," said Tomas Kraus, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.

One auction block led to another -- thus began the journey of many priceless pieces of art looted from Jews during some of Europe's darkest days. The Czech Republic has been combing its own galleries and records in search of such looted art. To date, 2,500 pieces have been identified – and still counting. But one detective on the case suspects many works of looted Czechoslovak art aren't even in Central Europe. Anne Webber, co-chairperson of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, has been trying to locate looted properties on behalf of Jewish claimants from around the globe.

"What we discovered when the Iron Curtain came down was that up until then, governments -- particularly the West German government -- had said, 'if you can't find work the works of art that were looted from you by the Nazis, they must be in East Germany, or in Russia. They must be behind the Iron Curtain.'

"Now indeed many works of art did turn out to be in Eastern Europe and in Russia. But many, many thousands of works turned out to be in the West. They turned out to be in America, or in Britain or in Europe because they'd been traded without any control, or barrier at all on the international art market since the 1930s," Ms. Webber said.

In Czechoslovakia, many works of art remaining in the country were bequeathed to the state. Under communist law, only Czechoslovak citizens could request the restitution of paintings. Holocaust survivors or their relatives living abroad were out of luck. But under Law 212, signed into law last June by President Vaclav Havel, non-citizens who can prove rightful ownership of the paintings may apply for restitution.

The Arthur Feldmann case is a prime example. Mr. Feldmann, a Brno lawyer, philanthropist and art aficionado, owned 700 Old Masters' Drawings before the war, one of the world's most eminent collections of its day. The Gestapo descended upon the Feldmann home the very day they occupied Czechoslovakia, March 15, 1939.

Anne Webber of the Art Commission represents Mr. Feldmann's grandson, Uri Peled, now residing in Israel. Mr. Peled's father, Karel, had escaped narrowly to Palestine in 1940, but was never to see his parents again.

"On the 10th of March 1941 Dr. Feldmann was sentenced to death. And the property of his which had not been already taken was confiscated under Nazi occupation law. On the 16th of March, after imprisonment in the Spielberg fortress, and torture, he died. His wife - or his widow - Mrs. Gisela Feldmann was subsequently deported to Therezenstadt, and from there she was sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered.

"As far as his collection was concerned, on the order of the Reichs' Protectorate, the remaining drawings of the late Dr. Feldmann were ordered to be sold off and there was a German administrator who was charged with dealing with this. Those drawings that remained from his property, which numbered some 129 drawings, were subsequently purchased by the Moravian gallery, what is today the Moravian Gallery in Brno."

Oskar Kokoschka 'View of Constantinople',  1929,  from the Oskar Federer collection currently in the Ostrava Gallery of Fine Art
Oskar Federer is another case. An avid art collector, Mr. Federer worked for the Rothschilds, heading up the Vitkovice Steel Mills in Ostrava between the world wars. During the war, Mr. Federer escaped to Canada, where the six-decade quest to retrieve his extensive collection of paintings continues, now with his grandson.

The Feldmann and Federer cases for restitution will test Czech Law 212, which is the first of its kind in Central Europe.

"The law is very exceptional because it's breaking some taboos in the Czech legislation for the first time. This is a base where people can claim things which were in their belonging before the war - even without having Czech citizenship, which normally the Czech legislation did not do, until that time. So, not only this, it's also part of the world quest for justice in this issue," said Mr. Kraus of the Jewish Federation.

But one prominent member of the Prague art community was not so enthusiastic. Under Law 212, 62 "heirless" paintings that belonged to Jewish Holocaust victims were transferred from the Czech National Gallery to the Jewish Museum in Prague. Milan Knizak, Director of the Czech National Gallery, was -- as Mr. Kraus from the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities put it -- "gritting his teeth"-- as the law was signed. Among the paintings at the Czech National Gallery was a Renoir.

"It goes from one institution to the other institution. And I like it if this is going back to real people. You know, the family - these people lost it. It was stolen from them. Then, let's have it back. But, if you don't know to whom it belongs and it goes to the [Jewish] community, which is impersonal, which, you know, has no relation to it, that's not [right]. That's my opinion."

Under Knizak's domain in Prague, the majority of three major collections have been returned to Jewish heirs. Considering Prague's wealth of gallery stock, Knizak does not lament the loss. The Ostrava case, however, is a different matter.

"The Federer collection in the Ostrava Gallery - I have to say it's the main part and the best part of the collection of modern art. So the whole collection of the Ostrava Gallery will be reduced and will lose a lot of things if the claim will be successful. But it doesn't have any connection to the final decision, because the decision must be independent of that," said Pavel Jirasek of the Czech Ministry of Culture.

Petr Beranek, director of the Ostrava Gallery, said the gallery will suffer a loss, as the collection features major European artists of the 20th century, among them an Edvard Munch. Twenty paintings currently in the gallery once belonged to Oskar Federer.

"This is of course a loss for the gallery. Our European collection will be greatly affected by this, because we will not have the money to purchase any works of this calibre," Mr. Beranek said.

For now, the fate of the Federer and Feldmann claims lies with the directors of the Ostrava and Brno galleries respectively.

"It's written in the law that our museums and galleries are independent, so they have their own decisions. And if there is no decision, the next step is the independent court. I think it's normal," said Mr. Jirasek of the Ministry of Culture.

Michaela Hajkova, curator of the Jewish Museum in Prague, is an author of a government-commissioned report on looted art. The team of five researchers spent 10 months culling through dusty archives detailing the systematic and legal theft of 1,000s upon 1,000s of items from Jewish families. Researchers discovered meticulously kept records by the German Protectorate's "Central Institute for Regulating the Jewish Question in Bohemia and Moravia" - their euphemism for Holocaust. One report orders the Gestapo to "expedite" the acquisition of Jewish goods, as families were fleeing in droves. Property was catalogued and described in great detail - furniture, china, crystal, jewels and of course paintings.

Unfortunately, Ms Hajkova said, many archives were destroyed at the tail end of the war.

While the German love for record-keeping ensured a paper trail of at least some of the German looted goods, the same was not the case for the liberating Red Army. Some items that escaped Gestapo hands did not escape scavagenging Russian soldiers.

"We know gold was looted by the Nazis from Jewish families. It was kept here, and in 1945, it was by the Red Army transferred to Moscow. And it is sitting there even today. This might be the same case with the art. We know the Red Army looted the art from the Germans. Because it was a victorious army, so they took whatever they thought would be appropriate because the Germans did the same when they invaded Russia. So, they didn't ask from where the Germans took it. For them, it was a German possession," Mr. Kraus of the Jewish Federation said.

At the end of World War II, unfortunately, Germans tried to destroy that paper trail of stolen goods. The incoming Communist regime promised restitution of such goods – and even passed a restitution law, in 1946. But the Communists didn't honor their own rule of law, explains Jiri Sitler, from the Foreign Ministry's Special Envoy for World War Two Issues.

"In some cases, the communist regime didn't respect post-war legislation, which ordered restitution of looted assets, and they didn't give back, for instance, art to persons who were not loyal to the communist regime," Mr. Sitler said.

While the Czechs continue their search for looted items, and heirs to claim them, the restitution law will soon receive its first test. In her work, Ms Hajkova unearthed documents on the Federer case, and is tracking developments now, with a curious eye.

"I think that now what's interesting in this case is how it will be processed, because, of course, the claimant is living abroad. He's a Canadian citizen. And what was new in this restitution law was that - at least [Deputy Prime Minister Pavel] Rychetsky said, that even foreign citizens will be able to submit their claims, and they will restitute their art back. So I wonder if that will really work in practice," Ms. Hajkova said.

Author: Tricia Deering
run audio