Croatian museums return art looted during Holocaust to Jewish heir

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Croatian museums return art looted during Holocaust to Jewish heir
In an undated photo via Andy Reichsman, “Still Life With a Bottle,” by Andre Derain. Three museums in Zagreb have returned artworks looted from a Jewish businessman, giving them to his grandson after court decisions that resolved a 70-year dispute and paved the way for the first reported Holocaust-era art restitution in Croatia. (Via Andy Reichsman via The New York Times)

by Catherine Hickley

NEW YORK, NY.- Three museums in Zagreb, Croatia, have returned artworks looted from a Jewish businessman, giving them to his grandson after court decisions that resolved a 70-year dispute and paved the way for the first reported Holocaust-era art restitution in Croatia.

The works returned this week to the heir, Andy Reichsman, include two paintings from the National Museum of Modern Art — André Derain’s “Still Life With a Bottle” and Maurice de Vlaminck’s “Landscape by the Water” — as well as lithographs by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard from the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

“This seems almost beyond belief,” Reichsman said in a phone interview from Zagreb. “I thought that our chances would be one in a million. They never had any interest in giving anything back to Jews.”

Croatia’s Jewish community was almost wiped out in the Holocaust after the invasion by the Axis powers and the creation in 1941 of the fascist Independent State of Croatia in parts of occupied Yugoslavia. Jews were evicted from their homes and forced to leave behind their belongings.

For decades, Croatia deflected claims for art looted from Jews during the Holocaust era. But in a major shift last year, the Croatian government cooperated with the World Jewish Restitution Organization to publish a joint report that chronicles the thefts and lists some of the stolen collections, many of which are still held by Croatian museums.

Nina Obuljen Korzinek, Croatia’s minister of culture and media, said at the time that the report demonstrated that the government “shares the wish to provide Holocaust survivors and their heirs with a fair measure of justice.”

The president of the restitution organization, Gideon Taylor, welcomed the decisions to return the works to Reichsman. “This is a positive step in dealing with outstanding Holocaust-era restitution issues in Croatia,” he said in a statement.

Reichsman’s grandfather Dane Reichsmann was the wealthy owner of a large department store in Zagreb before World War II. After the Gestapo imprisoned Reichsman’s father, Franz Reichsman, for two months in Vienna in 1938, he fled to the United States. His sister, Andy Reichsman’s aunt, left for London. (Franz Reichsman dropped an “n” from his surname after fleeing to the United States.)

But Dane Reichsmann remained behind in Zagreb. He and his wife, Frieda, were deported to Auschwitz and murdered. His art collection was seized by the fascist Ustashe regime.

Danica Svoboda, Andy Reichsman’s aunt, tried for 50 years to recover the looted art.

“She traveled to Zagreb every summer and met with gallery directors, government officials and anyone she felt could help her in her attempts to retrieve the art,” Reichsman said.

After her death more than 20 years ago, her nephew continued her quest. The Zagreb Municipal Court ruled in December 2020 that the artworks had rightfully belonged to Svoboda; a second court decision, in 2021, declared Andy Reichsman her heir.

Monja Matic, a Croatian lawyer who has worked on Reichsman’s behalf for two decades, said she was “very glad he had so much patience.”

In a statement on Facebook, the National Museum of Modern Art expressed regret that the restitution had taken three generations. It said that museums throughout Croatia, with the support of the culture ministry, are now “working intensively on researching provenance” for artworks when there is “a well-founded suspicion that they were unjustly confiscated during World War II.”

Reichsman also reclaimed a bronze plaque and a copper tray and bowl from a third museum, the Zagreb Museum of Arts and Crafts. His lawyer is seeking to recover 19 additional objects from the museum, including porcelain and a silver samovar.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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