Battle over legacy of father of Art Nouveau

Prague authorities are demanding Mucha's masterpiece be moved to the capital

He is perhaps best-known for his distinctive Art Nouveau lithographs depicting robust, goddess-like maidens with elaborate tresses, bared flesh and flowing robes that were used to advertise mundane items like French roll-your-own cigarette papers a little more than a century ago.

Suddenly, however, the work of Alphonse Mucha, the acclaimed Czech painter, has become the focus of a blistering row in his homeland where the Prague city government, a provincial town council and his grandson are all at loggerheads over a huge collection regarded as the artist's masterpiece.

Mucha, who died after being interrogated by the Gestapo in 1939, is credited with creating the Art Nouveau style through his scores of decorative paintings, posters, lithographs and advertisements. Yet it is his extensive and more serious 1928 tribute to the history of the Slav people which is at the centre of the current dispute.

The Slav Epic, which took Mucha more than a decade to complete, comprises 20 paintings up to 20ft high and 26ft wide that display haunting and evocative moments of Slav history. The works were buried under piles of coal during the Second World War to keep them hidden from Nazi art thieves. They only resurfaced in the early 1960s.

Since 1963, the collection, which was considered revanchist by Czechoslovakia's communist regime, has been on display in a crumbling château in the small Moravian town of Moravsky Krumlov only a few miles from the artist's birthplace in the village of Ivanice. Now, however, Prague wants the collection moved to the capital.

The initiative has provoked a furious and embittered response from the Moravsky Krumlov town council, local people and hundreds of others who have joined a campaign to keep the Slav Epic in the château. Hundreds of Czech art students recently demonstrated in front of the building and called for the collection to be left in place. Vaclav Klaus, the Czech President, has also backed Moravsky Krumlov's campaign.

"The collection is the soul of Moravsky Krumlov," said Jaroslav Mokry, the town's mayor, in a recent radio interview. "Krumlov saved the Epic from the ravages of fate and communism. People are disgusted with how the capital is treating a small town in Moravia which has saved a valuable work of art. It is a disgrace."

The Prague city authorities demanded that Moravsky Krumlov hand the paintings over to the capital earlier this year. They claim that they are simply acting in accordance with Mucha's original wishes which they say stipulated that the Slav Epic should go on display in Prague.

The move would seem to fulfil the promise made to Mucha in 1913, when an American businessman called Charles Crane commissioned the Slav Epic and offered to donate it to Prague on the condition that the city built a special gallery to house it.

Yet Prague never built the special gallery and, if it eventually secures the Slav Epic, it aims to put the collection on show at the city's Veletrzni Palace – a modern exhibition hall outside the centre – until it finds a permanent site for the work. This option has infuriated the artist's grandson, John Mucha, who only last month obtained a court order which temporarily stopped the paintings' planned 160-mile odyssey from Moravsky Krumlov to Prague dead in its tracks.

Mr Mucha claims to have evidence which refutes Prague's claim to the paintings. He says he possesses a letter written by his grandfather in the 1930s which expresses such frustration over Prague's failure to build a gallery for his works that he demands that the city's rights to the Slav Epic be revoked. Mr Mucha has accused Prague's politicians of attempting to speed up the move to gain attention ahead of local elections this October.

Yet Prague is equally angry about the attempt to thwart the paintings' relocation. "It is an absolutely absurd situation and an infringement of Prague's ownership rights," said Ordrej Pecha, the city councillor leading the campaign to have the collection taken to the capital. The city flatly denies that it is focusing on the painting for political reasons.

With attempts to shift the paintings currently on ice, Mr Mucha is said to be negotiating with an investor who has shown interest in providing the estimated €20m needed to build a private gallery to house the Slav Epic. Both want the building to stand on Prague's Letna Hill, where a monumental statue of Stalin stood from 1955 until 1962. However the Letna Hill site could well become the source of the next Czech art row. Fans of Michael Jackson have just secured the rights to erect a 6ft statue of their idol in the Letna park. Opposition to the statue is growing, with critics saying that, apart from one concert in 1996, Michael Jackson had nothing to do with Prague.