Prague, Dec 8 (CTK) – The National Gallery in Prague (NG) must return the valuable 14th century Gothic panel painting Madonna of Veveri to the Catholic Church, the Prague Municipal Court ruled yesterday, upholding the verdict of a lower level court.
The court said it has been proved that the painting belongs to the church and that the state is not its owner.
Appeals court panel chairman Milan Chmelicek said the evidence from the 1930s and from much older times proved that the painting was church property.
All conditions for the returning of the painting have been met, Chmelicek said.
The state clearly declared its ownership claim only in 1958 and never before the ownership had been declared in this way, he said.
The verdict will take effect after it is delivered and the National Gallery must give the painting to the church within 30 days after it takes effect.
The church’s lawyer Frantisek Severin said the NG should give the painting to the church by February 6, 2016 at the latest.
However, the NG may still appeal with the Supreme Court.
NG lawyer Ondrej Kolisko said the gallery would be considering filing the appeal.
Both parties in the dispute failed to reach agreement on the painting’s release before the court proceedings.
Severin said previously that the NG had refused an offer of a free 50-year loan of the painting in exchange for recognising the church’s ownership before filing the lawsuit.
The NG claimed that the church failed to unambiguously prove its former ownership of the painting. It said the state had acquired the painting before the communist coup in February 1948, which is the church restitution deadline.
However, the court disagreed with this opinion.
The Catholic Church argued that there was no document from the mid-18th century until 1958 to prove that the church lost the artifact.
The Madonna of Veveri, from the first half of the 14th century, is ascribed to an artist close to the Master of Vyssi Brod, south Bohemia. Until 1938 it decorated the interior of a church at the Veveri Castle that is closed now.
Documents from the 1930s show that the nearby Veverska Bityska parish owned the painting. However, in connection with the then political events, the painting gradually went to the State Forests Directorate in the late 1930s, then to the Agriculture Ministry, and in 1958 it was acquired by the NG.
This suit might become a precedent for similar cases. The number of such lawsuits, filed by the church, may be rising.
According to the restitution law, churches are to be returned land and real estate worth 75 billion, stolen from them by the communist regime, and given 59 billion crowns plus inflation in financial compensation for unreturned property during the following 30 years. Simultaneously, the state will gradually cease financing churches.