Israel Museum Buys Back Nazi-Looted Gold Medallions From Heirs

Bloomberg, 1 July 2008
By Catherine Hickley

July 1 (Bloomberg) -- The Israel Museum in Jerusalem agreed with the heirs of a Polish countess on the repurchase of two rare gold-glass medallions that found their way into its collection after being looted from Warsaw by the Nazis in 1941.

The medallions feature Jewish symbols and were embedded in the walls of the Rome catacombs as tomb markers, according to a statement today from the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, which helped the heirs negotiate the restitution. One has been repurchased from the heirs by the Israel Museum, while the second was bought by a patron for long-term loan to the museum.

``We are very happy with the outcome,'' Adam Zamoyski, one of the heirs, said in the statement. ``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 medallions belonged to Countess Isabella Dzialynska, who collected thousands of works of art in the second half of the 19th century, including paintings, antiquities, medieval and Renaissance enamels, jewelry and silver. The family transported the most valuable items from her castle at Goluchow, which was close to the German border, to Warsaw in 1939.

The Nazis found the treasures and seized them in 1941. On Hitler's orders, they were taken to Castle Fischhorn in Zell am See, Austria, in 1944. The local population and dealers looted the collection again after World War II.

Jewish Motifs

The heirs' efforts to trace the gold-glass medallions after the war were fruitless until four years ago, when they learned that they were in the Israel Museum, which had acquired them in Vienna in 1965.

The medallions were probably used as bases for cups and bowls before being buried with their owners. The Israel Museum examples are rare because most such medallions bear Christian motifs, with fewer than 20 featuring Jewish symbols. They are among the earliest-known depictions of Jewish symbols from the Second Temple period to appear outside Israel.

Anne Webber, Co-chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said the terms of the agreement were confidential and declined to say how much the museum and its patron paid to keep the two medallions.

``In terms of Jewish heritage, they are priceless,'' Webber said by telephone from London. ``It is impossible to place a value on them because they are unique.''

Torah, Menorahs

The first medallion, repurchased by the Israel Museum, is decorated with a Holy Ark containing Torah scrolls, two crouching lions of Judah and two menorahs. The second, acquired by a patron, has many of the same symbols. They were made by applying gold leaf to a glass disk, then engraving it with intricate designs. The medallion was then encased in glass to preserve the gold.

A third medallion in the museum's collection will be returned to the family, Webber said. Found in Cologne, it has no Jewish motifs and is purely decorative, depicting a fruit basket and a duck.

The Dzialynska heirs recently recovered a medieval processional cross after a Zell am See resident discovered it in a rubbish bin. Other items the family has retrieved are on show in Warsaw and in Poznan and the heirs are aiming to eventually house the reconstituted collection in its own museum.

To contact the writer on this story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

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