A family fight

The Globe and Mail 1 August 2006
James Adams

One back, 20 more to go.

That's how Toronto investment banker Andrew Federer and his brother and sister are looking at the recent recovery of an oil painting by Czech master Otakar Nejedly (1883-1957) that once belonged to their grandfather, Czech-Jewish industrialist Oskar Federer.

But it's something of a compromised triumph: Officials in the Czech Republic have announced that they are appealing to the country's highest court to have the Nejedly returned to where it had been housed for at least a half-century, the East Bohemian Gallery of Fine Arts in Pardubice, a city of about 100,000 near Prague.

The Nejedly, an undated landscape likely painted in the 1920s, is one of 21 works that Andrew Federer has spent more than a decade trying to reclaim from Czech authorities after they were confiscated first by the Nazis, then by the Communists after the Second World War.

Before the war, Federer's grandfather had built a collection of more than 140 works by artists such as van Gogh, Cézanne, Matisse and Renoir. He had to leave most of his art behind in Europe when he fled the Nazis in 1939 for Great Britain, then North America, to eventually settle in Canada, where he died in 1968.

This year, the director of the East Bohemian Gallery, Martin Dostal, agreed that the Nejedly landscape should go to Canada after two rulings by Czech lower courts ordered it restored to Oskar Federer's heirs.

Along with the Nejedly landscape, Dostal ordered 20 works in the Gallery of Fine Arts in the city of Ostrava restored as well . The rulings were made under a law signed in 2000 by then president Vaclav Havel guaranteeing restoration of looted art to heirs provided "rightful ownership" was established.

In 2004, regional Czech courts agreed that the Federers' claims were legitimate after the family sued in 2003. This was appealed by the two galleries to the country's court of appeal which, in December last year, ruled again in favour of the Federer claim. "In theory, the way the law is supposed to work, the galleries were supposed to give everything back" after the December, 2005, decision, Andrew Federer said recently. And indeed, the East Bohemian Gallery complied by transferring the Nejedly in May.

"It's not a terribly valuable painting," Federer observed, "so the deal probably was, 'Let's throw them a bone, give them that one back.' " (A Czech news agency placed its value in 2004 at $15,000.)

By contrast, the Ostrava gallery has never acknowledged the legitimacy of Federer's claim on its 20 contested paintings. As a result, it and the Moravian-Silesian regional government are heading to the Czech supreme court to argue previous rulings "incorrectly evaluated documents" the Federers provided.

The gallery and the regional government also have enlisted the support of the Pardubice Region and the East Bohemian Gallery for the appeal -- even though director Dostal told a correspondent with The Prague Post that he finds the situation "absurd and immoral."

Meanwhile, Federer is trying to be sanguine. "In theory, if I lose at the supreme court, they could probably say, 'Well, you have to give [the Nejedly] back.' . . . But good luck." Now that it's on Canadian soil, he says, "I don't think they're ever getting it back.

"We've always been hopeful," he added, "that someone would come along and intervene and say, 'Enough.' It's not like there's been any ambiguity in the judicial decisions. . . . Every point has been in our favour."
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