Israel Museum returns artifacts looted by Nazis

Owners agree to let two of the artifacts, decorated with 'priceless' Jewish motifs, remain in collection.

medallions 224 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
medallions 224 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
The Israel Museum has returned to a Polish noble family three 1,700-year-old Roman gold medallions seized by the Nazis during the World War II occupation of Poland, the museum announced Tuesday. Two of the medallions, which are decorated with "priceless" Jewish motifs and represent some of the earliest known depictions of Jewish symbols from the Second Temple to appear outside of Israel, have been repurchased on behalf of the museum in agreement with the heirs. The medallions, distinguished by iconic imagery of the Holy Ark, the Lions of Judah and the Menora, were originally acquired in Vienna in 1965 by museum founder and former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. The two medallions had been featured on permanent display in the museum's archeology galleries and in several exhibitions and publications. Four years ago, it emerged that all three medallions, originally the bases of bowls or cups, were part of a collection of thousands of antiques, paintings, tapestries and other artifacts that Countess Isabella Dzialynska amassed in the 1800s and kept at her castle in Goluchow, Poland. Documents provided by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which represents the heirs, show that during WWII, the Nazis seized precious items from the collection, including the glasses, in Warsaw in 1941. The items were then moved on Hitler's orders to an Austrian castle in 1944, where they were looted by locals and art dealers in the aftermath of the war before the arrival of the Americans. There is no record of the subsequent movements of the art until the items were purchased in Vienna in 1965 for the museum, the museum said in a press release. "The restitution of works of art that were stolen or unwillingly sold during WWII is a challenging, sensitive and complex subject," said James S. Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. "It is therefore rewarding to be able to achieve a resolution in this case which restitutes title of these objects to their rightful heirs while also preserving two of them for the Museum's collection." The commission approached the Israel Museum four years ago upon discovering the medallions were in its collection and negotiated the restitution agreement, said Anne Webber, co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe. "We are delighted to have agreed [to] the restitution and to have facilitated the retention by the Israel Museum of the two gold-glasses with their significant Jewish motifs," the organization said in a press release. "Many works of art from this renowned collection are still missing, and we hope that the news of this restitution may contribute to their location and recovery in the future." "We are very happy with the outcome," said Count Adam Zamoyski on behalf of the heirs. "Although our purpose is to recover as many looted items as possible, with a view one day to recreate the Dzialynska Collection in Poland, we fully recognize the importance of the two glasses to the Jewish people and respect the wishes of the Israel Museum to keep them in Jerusalem." The third medallion is en route back to the owners in London. Neither the museum nor the heirs, who now live in London, would divulge the sums paid for the medallions. The medallions were first discovered in the 17th century in catacombs in Rome, where they were embedded in the walls as tomb markers, and were believed to have been used by the entombed individuals during their lives. The bases were prepared by a meticulous process through which gold leaf, affixed to a glass disk, was incised with intricate designs and then encased with a glass bubble to preserve the gold. Of the hundreds of surviving bases, many bear Christian motifs, and fewer than 20 feature Jewish symbols. An estimated 250,000 and 600,000 pieces of art looted by the Nazis during WWII were never claimed and remain in the possession of museums, governments and private collectors around the world. In the nine years since it was founded, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe has restored 3,000 pieces to their owners, said Webber. "For any family to recover such an object is to recover some of the life that was destroyed," Webber said in a telephone interview from London. Over the years, the Israel Museum has returned to heirs about 20 pieces looted by the Nazis, including major works by Camille Pissarro, claimed in 2000, and Edgar Degas, sought in 2005. The restitution also follows the recent presentation of the Museum's two landmark exhibitions on the subject of art lost during the war and held in custody in France and Israel.