Czech reclaiming artworks for fear of seizure

June 10, 2011 - 3:57 AM

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech Republic is racing to reclaim valuable artworks it loaned to museums across Europe before they can be seized in a battle over a $500 million judgment to a businessman who says the government slandered him.

The government has refused to abide by a 2008 Czech arbitration court ruling that it owed Josef Stava 8.3 billion koruna ($500 million) as compensation for wrongfully claiming in 1992 that his blood plasma company was suspected of illegal activities.

Stava's lawyers turned to the courts in several EU countries and the U.S. to seize the country's assets. Courts in Vienna and Paris recognized the company's claim in May.

Authorities in Austria seized from Vienna's Belvedere Gallery two paintings, "The Dancer" by Vincenc Benes and "Two Women," by Emil Filla, together worth euro600,000 ($877,000), and a bronze statue, "The Embrace," by Otto Gutfreund. They are being held until an appeals court deals with the case.

The Czech National Gallery learned about the Austria seizure May 24, spokeswoman Eva Kolerusova said. The Czechs have quickly withdrawn dozens of paintings from exhibitions in France and other EU countries, including a Manet painting from the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, in fear they could also be seized, she said.

"It could affect our loans policy for many years," Kolerusova said.

The Czech Culture Ministry said it would not, for now, allow any artwork worth more than 100,000 koruna ($6,055) to be loaned abroad.

The Paris court has not ordered any seizure of Czech assets yet and no other Czech property has been seized.

Stava announced last week he sold his plasma company, Diag Human, to an unknown group of international investors, but did not reveal the price. Including interest, Diag Human is demanding some 10 billion koruna ($600 million) from the government.

Health Minister Leos Heger said the ministry was working to appeal the Vienna and Paris court rulings. Heger said the courts had only heard evidence from Diag Human and that he was confident the ministry's appeal would be successful because the dispute has not been solved yet in the Czech Republic.

"The steps taken by foreign courts are based on insufficient information provided by Diag Human lawyers," Prime Minister Petr Necas said during a parliamentary debate last week.

In an interview sent to Czech media this week, Stava said he was "really exhausted" after the 20-year conflict and "I want to devote myself to something more positive." He said he would not comment on the case any more.

In a 1992 letter signed by the country's then-Health Minister Martin Pojar, the ministry stated Stava's company was suspected of illegal activities. As a result, it didn't win a contract with the ministry.

It is not clear when any new arbitration trial in the Czech Republic could take place.