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Restitution of property looted by the Nazis takes on new urgency.
PRAGUE — With little more than paper, pen and her own detective skills, Miriam Friedman Morris has been on a personal mission for nearly 30 years to track down a lifetime's worth of her father's artwork that was plundered by the Nazis.
David Friedman was a prolific, if not famous, artist whose portraits were published in more than 250 German newspapers before World War II, according to his daughter. After Kristallnacht — the night of broken glass in November 1938 — Friedman fled Berlin, with his wife and infant daughter, for the Czech capital.
“Growing up I was always intrigued with his pre-war life and what became of his artwork in Berlin and in Prague,” she said. “After his death (in 1980) I began to read his diary and found small clues that I might actually be able to find something.”
Speaking on the sidelines of a five-day conference dedicated to the restitution of private property — real estate, art and personal assets — that was stolen or confiscated by the Nazis, Friedman-Morris said she found a trove of her father's work at the Jewish Museum here in Prague.
But if you thought a Jewish Museum would be more accommodating than a non-Jewish entity when it comes to returning property claimed by a Jewish heir — think again.
“The museum is not forthcoming when they ask for credible evidence, when they know that's not possible,” she said. “For the most part I can't prove if the work was stolen, confiscated, or whether (my father) sold them — because he was a successful artist.”
The museum's website lays out in meticulous detail how one goes about making a restitution claim. And at first glance it seems that the Czechs are ahead of the game, at least compared with their European neighbors.
A law passed in 2000 states that, "Artworks taken from individuals in the period between 29 September 1938 and 4 May 1945 as a result of a transfer or transfers of ownership which were declared invalid by Presidential Decree ... shall be transferred free of charge into the ownership of the individual who owned them prior to dispossession."
But the burden of proof rests entirely upon the heir. The old adage that "possession is nine-tenths of the law" was, perhaps, never more true than here. The museum is also unable to offer proof that it is the rightful owner, according to Friedman-Morris.
“There is no such thing as a bill of sale,” she said with a faint laugh. “The information about the confiscations (of property) is slim to none.”