Jews Remain Stymied in Efforts to Reclaim Art Looted by Nazis

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 28, 2009

PRAGUE, June 27 -- Holocaust survivors and their heirs are still battling museums and governments for the return of thousands of pieces of looted art, despite pledges made by dozens of countries in Washington a decade ago to resolve the claims.

At a major conference underway here in Prague, delegates from 49 countries acknowledged that Jews continue to be stymied in their efforts to reclaim art that was stolen by the Nazis and later transferred to museums and galleries around the world, especially in Europe. An estimated 100,000 artworks, from invaluable masterpieces to items of mostly sentimental value, remain lost or beyond legal reach of their victimized owners and descendants.

"This is one of our last chances to inject a new sense of justice into this issue before it's too late for Holocaust victims," said Stuart Eizenstat, head of the U.S. delegation to the conference and a former ambassador and deputy Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration.

The Holocaust Era Assets Conference, hosted by the Czech Republic, is an attempt to revive a global campaign that began 11 years ago to track down long-lost art collections that were confiscated or acquired under dubious circumstances during the Holocaust.

In December 1998, after many world-famous museums were found to have Nazi-tainted art in their collections, representatives from 44 countries met in Washington and endorsed guidelines for investigating claims of stolen items and returning them to their rightful owners.

The guidelines, known in the art world as the Washington Principles, have eased the return of looted art in many cases. Despite their endorsement by most European countries and the United States, however, the guidelines are legally nonbinding. They are also often ignored in practice by museums and governments that profess in public to abide by them, according to art experts.

Michal Klepetar, a real-estate project manager from Prague, has been trying for nine years to persuade the Czech National Gallery to relinquish 43 paintings that once belonged to his great-uncle, Richard Popper, a prominent collector who was deported to Poland and perished in the Jewish ghetto in the city of Lodz.

Popper's wife and daughter also died in Nazi camps. Klepetar, 62, and his brother are their closest living relatives. But the National Gallery has refused to part with the paintings, citing a law adopted in 2000 by the Czech government that entitles only Holocaust victims or their "direct descendants" to file claims for stolen property.

In an interview, Klepetar argued that the Czech law was unconstitutional, unethical and particularly unfair to Jews. An estimated 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust; many families were survived only by distant relatives.

"This country, like most of the region, had always been anti-Semitic through the centuries," he said. "The only difference now is that it's not politically correct. That's the root of the whole problem."

Klepetar's great-uncle had amassed a collection of 127 artworks -- mostly Flemish and Dutch paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries -- which vanished after the war. In 2000, however, Klepetar said someone leaked him part of a confidential Czech government report on looted art that indicated 43 of the paintings had been in the National Gallery's possession since the early 1950s.

The National Gallery later acknowledged it had the paintings but refused to divulge any details, such as how they were acquired, their condition or their precise location. Klepetar has pressed his claim in the Czech courts for several years but has lost repeatedly because he is not considered a direct descendant under the law.

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