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Top: JewishWorld Conspiracies: RestitutionIssues: WWII Art Theft by Father of Madelaine Albright, U.S.Secretary of State
The Times of London, March 30, 1999 - A WEALTHY Austrianfamily is threatening legal action against Madeleine Albright,the American secretary of state, in an acrimonious row over apriceless collection of paintings and antiques that has its rootsin the chaotic aftermath of the second world war.
In a hitherto unpublicised dispute, descendants of Karl Nebrich,an Austrian industrialist, claim that Albright's father, JosefKorbel, a former Czech foreign ministry official who was Jewish,stole millions of dollars' worth of art and furniture from them,then fled with it and his family to America at the end of thewar.
Tired of endless brush-offs from an American lawyer actingfor John Korbel, Albright's brother, Nebrich's heirs are consideringlegal proceedings to reclaim the property - including a collectionof old masters - in what risks becoming an embarrassing distractionfor America's first female secretary of state.
"I cannot believe the American secretary of state enjoyseating with my family's silver," Philip Harmer, a great-grandsonof Nebrich, said last week. "These things must be handedover to my family."
Albright fled from Nazism and then Stalinism as a child andhas cited these events as having shaped her world view. Afterescaping to London when the Germans marched into Prague in 1939,her family returned to the Czech capital in 1945, when Albrightwas eight. They found that several of the family's Jewish relativeswho had stayed behind had died in concentration camps. A luxuriousfirst-floor flat at 11 Hradsanke Street in Prague was assignedto Albright's father as a reward for his services to the Czechforeign ministry. It had been expropriated from the Nebriches,who, although not members of the Nazi party, had lived comfortablyas citizens of the Reich during the war but then found themselvesout of favour with the Czech authorities when the war ended.
The Nebriches allege that Korbel took possession of paintings,silver and antique furniture, though these were not included inthe expropriation order. "He took the lot, even the nailsfrom the wall," said Doris Renner, a daughter of Nebrich.When Korbel was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia, he moved hisfamily - and, allegedly, the treasure trove of art - to Belgrade.
Three years later, however, Czechoslovakia's communists stageda coup and Korbel, an opponent of the communists, was in danger.The family fled to America, where he became a professor at theUniversity of Denver.
The Nebrich family tried for decades to track a "Dr Korbel"in America. But it was not until 1996, when Albright - then America'sambassador to the United Nations - revisited her childhood homein Prague and spoke of her happy memories, that the Nebrich familyrealised she was Korbel's daughter.
Harmer, acting for Nebrich's two surviving children - Renner,his great-aunt, and Ruth Harmer, his grandmother - began bombardingAlbright's office with faxes, letters and lists of items allegedlytaken by Korbel. Among them were 20 paintings - including oneby Tintoretto, the Venetian master, and one by Andrea del Sarto,another of the most important artists of the 16th century.
"You lived in our flat as an eight-year-old child andI am sure you will remember some of the paintings mentioned onthe attached list," Harmer wrote to Albright in February1997. He suggested a meeting. The response was not promising."You may wish to raise this matter with the government ofthe Czech Republic," a State Department official wrote back.
After more faxes from Harmer, Albright handed the file toJohn Korbel, her younger brother. Michael Jaffe, his lawyer, wroteto Harmer in October, 1997, saying: "There is no basis whateverfor thinking that any artworks of the late Ambassador Korbel cameto him improperly."
Undeterred, Harmer flew to Washington last year to see thelawyer. "Essentially he said we have no case and warned usnot to make a noise since this powerful woman is involved,"Harmer alleged.
The lawyer declined to discuss the case last week and Korbel,who works for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers inArlington, Virginia, was unavailable for comment.
Harmer is considering taking Albright, Korbel and their sister,Kathy, to court. He was heartened recently by Korbel's reportedacknowledgment to a journalist writing a biography of Albrightthat at least some works on the Nebrich list belong either tohim or to Kathy. None of the paintings is believed to be hangingin Albright's home in Georgetown, Washington.
Harmer said the family believed that Korbel Sr might havesold some of the paintings to finance his start in America. "Weaccept that Josef Korbel's children are not responsible for theirfather's activities," he wrote in another fax to Korbel'slawyer last week. "However," "we definitely expectedthem to list any items honestly and to hand them over."
Renner says she recalls Josef Korbel arguing that he was entitledto take the Nebriches' belongings as compensation for having losteverything to the Nazis.
"All his relatives died in concentration camps,"she said last week from her home on the shores of Lake Wolfgangnear Salzburg. "That is very sad. But it doesn't justifyhim taking everything from us."
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