Historic Art Restitution in Croatia: Museums Return Looted Holocaust-Era Art to Jewish Heir
Edited by: Fern Sidman
In a significant step towards addressing historical injustices, three museums in Zagreb, Croatia, have returned artworks looted from a Jewish businessman during the Holocaust era to his grandson, Andy Reichsman, as was reported Friday in the New York Times. This historic restitution follows a 70-year dispute and reflects a remarkable shift in Croatia’s stance on Holocaust-era art restitution, marking the first such case reported in the country. The NYT report indicated that the returned artworks include pieces from renowned artists such as André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Pierre Bonnard.
The works returned 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, the NYT report said. The artworks were turned over in Zagreb on September 18, by the National Museum of Modern Art, in compliance with the Civil Court’s decision.
Andy Reichsman, the grandson of Dane Reichsmann, the Jewish businessman who originally owned these artworks, expressed his disbelief at the restitution. According to the NYT report, he mentioned that he thought their chances of recovering the looted art would be nearly impossible due to the historical reluctance of institutions to return such items to Jewish families.
“This seems almost beyond belief,” Reichsman said in a phone interview with the NYT from Zagreb. “I thought that our chances would be one in a million. They never had any interest in giving anything back to Jews.”
Dane Reichsmann, a prosperous department store owner in Zagreb, saw his art collection seized by the fascist Ustashe regime during World War II.
In 1946, the artworks were entrusted to the Museum by the Ministry of Science and Culture on behalf of the State after they were retrieved from Marijan Polić. Polić had safeguarded them for the Reichsmann family.
Dane Reichsmann, along with his wife Frieda Reichsmann, was tragically deported to Auschwitz and subsequently murdered. The valuable art collection he had amassed during his lifetime was confiscated by the Ustashe regime, perpetuating a long-standing injustice that has only now begun to be addressed.
Croatia’s Jewish community endured immense suffering during the Holocaust, with the invasion by Axis powers and the creation of the Independent State of Croatia in 1941 leading to mass evictions and the abandonment of personal belongings by Jews.
For decades, Croatia resisted claims for art looted from Jews during the Holocaust era. However, in a significant shift last year, the Croatian government collaborated with the World Jewish Restitution Organization to publish a joint report detailing the thefts and listing stolen collections, many of which are still housed in Croatian museums, according to the NYT report. This collaboration marked a new willingness by Croatia to acknowledge and address historical injustices.
In a statement sent to the media on Thursday, the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) said that they welcome the return of two significant artworks, André Derain’s “Still Life with a Bottle” and Maurice de Vlaminck’s “Landscape by the Water,” to Andrew Reichsmann, culminating a decades-long restitution process. Gideon Taylor, the President of the WJRO said, “We welcome the return of these two paintings. This is a positive step in dealing with outstanding Holocaust era restitution issues in Croatia.”
The WJRO represents world Jewry in pursuing claims for the recovery of Jewish properties in Europe (outside of Germany and Austria). WJRO was established by leading world Jewish organizations to address the restitution of Jewish property and to remind the world that the time has come to redress the enormous material wrongs caused to European Jewry during the Holocaust.
Nina Obuljen Korzinek, the Croatian minister of culture and media, emphasized the government’s commitment to providing Holocaust survivors and their heirs with a fair measure of justice through the joint report, as was reported by the NYT.
The journey to restitution spanned generations within the Reichsman family. According to the NYT report, after her brother Franz Reichsman’s imprisonment by the Gestapo in 1938, Danica Svoboda, Andy Reichsman’s aunt, embarked on a relentless quest to recover the looted art. She made annual trips to Zagreb, engaging with gallery directors, government officials, and anyone who could assist her in her mission, the report added.
Despite her dedicated efforts, Danica Svoboda did not live to see the restitution of her family’s art collection. After her passing over 20 years ago, her nephew, Andy Reichsman, continued her pursuit of justice, the NYT report said.
“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 told the NYT.
The path to restitution began with a ruling by the Zagreb Municipal Court in December 2020, which declared that the artworks rightfully belonged to Danica Svoboda, the NYT reported. A subsequent court decision in 2021 recognized Andy Reichsman as her heir, officially paving the way for the return of the looted art.
The NYT report also indicated that Monja Matic, the Croatian lawyer who has worked on Reichsman’s behalf for two decades, said she was “very glad he had so much patience.”
In response to the restitution, the National Museum of Modern Art expressed its regret that it took three generations for this historic act of justice to occur. As was noted in the NYT report, the museum, along with other cultural institutions in Croatia, supported by the Ministry of Culture, is now actively engaged in researching the provenance of artworks to identify those that were unjustly confiscated during World War II.
While the recent return of looted artworks is a significant milestone, Andy Reichsman’s quest for justice is ongoing. His lawyer is currently working to recover an additional 19 objects, including porcelain items and a silver samovar, from the Zagreb Museum of Arts and Crafts, according to the NYT report.
While there is still much work to be done in addressing outstanding restitution cases, this momentous act sets a precedent for acknowledging and rectifying historical wrongs, offering a glimmer of closure and justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.