Britain's pledge on Jewish art put to the test

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The Independent Online
A HUNGARIAN Jew whose father sent his pounds 5m art collection to London for wartime safekeeping is fighting for compensation from the British government who then sold it.

The story of Gabor Bedo and his father, Rudolf, is set to prove a serious problem for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). He will test the promise made earlier this year by Margaret Beckett, the President of the Board of Trade, to make amends for mistakes made in dealing with Jewish assets after the war.

The details of the Bedo art collection, discovered in an investigation by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) and the BBC's Newsnight programme, suggest that the scale of the compensation demands could be enormous.

Thousands of Jews lodged property and accounts in Britain during the Second World War. But under the Trading with the Enemy Act, property of all residents of enemy or enemy-occupied countries was frozen. Rudolf Bedo, like thousands of other Eastern European Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain after the war, was too terrified of being accused of being a traitor by the Communists to contact the West and claim his collection.

"He dared not take steps because he knew that if he was suspected to have connections with the West he would be suspected of being a spy," Gabor Bedo told the BBC.

When the British government heard nothing, his property was sold at auction at Phillips in 1955, raising pounds 4,500 - a Renoir went for pounds 10. Soaring prices means the collection could be worth pounds 5m at today's prices, according to the HET.

Rudolf was "most sorry" when he learnt that the collection had been sold, his son said. He added: "It was not only the worth of it. It was built by him and put together, a beautiful collection was ruined by the fact that it was confiscated.

"He could not understand that a democratic country like England could confiscate a fortune of a person who was a Jew, was persecuted by the Nazis and by the Soviets, the Communists. How was this possible? We looked to England as the country where there is absolute freedom for everyone."

By the time the Communists fell, Rudolf was dead. In 1990, Gabor wrote from Hungary to the repository in London to inquire what had happened to the works. He was told there was no trace of them. Then earlier this year, Gabor, 67, contacted the HET in London and an investigation began.

Hours of research in art and auction archives finally revealed that one picture, Luca Giordano's St John of Capistrano Appearing to a Franciscan Saint, had been exhibited for sale in 1956 by the Colnaghi gallery in Mayfair, London.

The trust wrote to the gallery asking how they came by the work, and their records showed that it was bought at the 1955 auction. The sale catalogue included 70 works from the Bedo collection.

Eight other works turned up which had been sold in the Sixties and Seventies. Some had made six-figure sums in Europe and the United States.

One 14th-century painting by Matteo de Pacino was given to the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1961 and is on public display. Another 14th- century panel, attributed to Jacopo di Cione, was exhibited in the late Eighties by the Colnaghi gallery. It is still stored by the gallery and is worth more than pounds 100,000.

A DTI spokesman said that all cases like Mr Bedo's would be examined by an independent assessor. Lord Archer of Sandwell, a former chairman of Amnesty International, was yesterday appointed to the post. The claims procedure would "be based on the principle that confiscated assets placed in the UK by victims of Nazi persecution should be returned to them, where practicable and where claims can be validated".