Czech Museum returns original Beethoven score to heirs

PRAGUE — A music manuscript handwritten by Ludwig van Beethoven will be returned to the heirs of the wealthiest family in pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, whose members were forced to flee the country before the Holocaust.

The Moravian Museum in Brno, Czech Republic has had the original manuscript of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130, in its collection for more than 80 years. The museum exhibited the score for the first time this week in anticipation of returning it to its rightful owners.

“It is one of the most valuable pieces in our collections,” said museum curator Simona Šindelářová.

The museum said a restitution law for property stolen by German Nazis made restitution possible. Details of how the family, whose fortunes came mainly from mining and banking in Central Europe, acquired the piece by one of the German composer’s late quartets after World War I are unknown.

“We are sorry that we lost it, but it rightfully belongs to the Petschek family,” said Šindelářová.

Beethoven composed the six-movement String Quartet in B flat major in 1825–1826 as part of his work on a series of quartets commissioned by the Russian Prince Nicholas Galitzin. It was first performed in March 1826 in the concert hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, Austria.

Museums, archives and libraries in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Poland and the United States currently hold nearly 300 pages of the entire autograph.

It is known that Beethoven, who died in 1827, gave the fourth movement to his secretary Karl Holz and that at least two other private owners in Vienna bought it before the Petscheks.

The family tried to mail the manuscript abroad in March 1939, during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, but failed, drawing the attention of the Gestapo.

According to Šindelářová, the Germans at the time asked an expert from the Moravian Museum to confirm that Beethoven had written the document, and “he denied it to save it from the occupiers”.

The lie could have cost him dearly, but it worked; the museum was allowed to keep the piece. However, the Nazis confiscated most of the assets and possessions of the Petschek family, which Czechoslovakia’s communist regime nationalized after the war.

From his new home in the United States, Franz Petschek, who had run the family’s mining companies in Czechoslovakia, tried to get the piece back, but was thwarted by the post-war division of Europe and the creation of the Iron Curtain.

The Moravian Museum signed a contract on August 3 to transfer ownership of the manuscript to its heirs. However, other families with claims to property and valuable items lost during World War II are still awaiting resolution of their cases.

Anne Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said that although 47 countries agreed in 2009 to try to solve the injustices of the Holocaust-era, “the return of looted artworks appears to be a problem often just as distant from a prospect as ever.”

“Approximately 90% of all the artworks sought by families today have neither been found nor returned,” Webber said at a conference held in Prague last month to review progress made since the Theresienstadt Non-binding Declaration was adopted were achieved.

The statement called on governments to make every effort to return former Jewish communal and religious property confiscated by the Nazis, fascists and their collaborators, and recommended that countries implement programs to address the problem of private buildings and land.

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Video journalist Jan Gebert contributed from Brno, Czech Republic

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