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 Posted Sunday, March 28, 1999

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London March 28, 1999



Albright's father 'took war loot to America'

by Matthew Campbell, Washington


A WEALTHY Austrian family is threatening legal action against Madeleine Albright, the American secretary of state, in an acrimonious row over a priceless collection of paintings and antiques that has its roots in the chaotic aftermath of the second world war.

In a hitherto unpublicised dispute, descendants of Karl Nebrich, an Austrian industrialist, claim that Albright's father, Josef Korbel, a former Czech foreign ministry official who was Jewish, stole millions of dollars' worth of art and furniture from them, then fled with it and his family to America at the end of the war.

Tired of endless brush-offs from an American lawyer acting for John Korbel, Albright's brother, Nebrich's heirs are considering legal proceedings to reclaim the property - including a collection of old masters - in what risks becoming an embarrassing distraction for America's first female secretary of state.

"I cannot believe the American secretary of state enjoys eating with my family's silver," Philip Harmer, a great-grandson of Nebrich, said last week. "These things must be handed over to my family."

Albright fled from Nazism and then Stalinism as a child and has cited these events as having shaped her world view. After escaping to London when the Germans marched into Prague in 1939, her family returned to the Czech capital in 1945, when Albright was eight. They found that several of the family's Jewish relatives who had stayed behind had died in concentration camps.

A luxurious first-floor flat at 11 Hradsanke Street in Prague was assigned to Albright's father as a reward for his services to the Czech foreign ministry. It had been expropriated from the Nebriches, who, although not members of the Nazi party, had lived comfortably as citizens of the Reich during the war but then found themselves out of favour with the Czech authorities when the war ended.

The Nebriches allege that Korbel took possession of paintings, silver and antique furniture, though these were not included in the expropriation order. "He took the lot, even the nails from the wall," said Doris Renner, a daughter of Nebrich. When Korbel was appointed ambassador to Yugoslavia, he moved his family - and, allegedly, the treasure trove of art - to Belgrade.

Three years later, however, Czechoslovakia's communists staged a coup and Korbel, an opponent of the communists, was in danger. The family fled to America, where he became a professor at the University of Denver.

The Nebrich family tried for decades to track a "Dr Korbel" in America. But it was not until 1996, when Albright - then America's ambassador to the United Nations - revisited her childhood home in Prague and spoke of her happy memories, that the Nebrich family realised she was Korbel's daughter.

Harmer, acting for Nebrich's two surviving children - Renner, his great-aunt, and Ruth Harmer, his grandmother - began bombarding Albright's office with faxes, letters and lists of items allegedly taken by Korbel. Among them were 20 paintings - including one by Tintoretto, the Venetian master, and one by Andrea del Sarto, another of the most important artists of the 16th century.

"You lived in our flat as an eight-year-old child and I am sure you will remember some of the paintings mentioned on the attached list," Harmer wrote to Albright in February 1997. He suggested a meeting. The response was not promising. "You may wish to raise this matter with the government of the Czech Republic," a State Department official wrote back.

After more faxes from Harmer, Albright handed the file to John Korbel, her younger brother. Michael Jaffe, his lawyer, wrote to Harmer in October, 1997, saying: "There is no basis whatever for thinking that any artworks of the late Ambassador Korbel came to him improperly."

Undeterred, Harmer flew to Washington last year to see the lawyer. "Essentially he said we have no case and warned us not to make a noise since this powerful woman is involved," Harmer alleged.

The lawyer declined to discuss the case last week and Korbel, who works for the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers in Arlington, Virginia, was unavailable for comment.

Harmer is considering taking Albright, Korbel and their sister, Kathy, to court. He was heartened recently by Korbel's reported acknowledgment to a journalist writing a biography of Albright that at least some works on the Nebrich list belong either to him or to Kathy. None of the paintings is believed to be hanging in Albright's home in Georgetown, Washington.

Harmer said the family believed that Korbel Sr might have sold some of the paintings to finance his start in America. "We accept that Josef Korbel's children are not responsible for their father's activities," he wrote in another fax to Korbel's lawyer last week. "However," "we definitely expected them to list any items honestly and to hand them over."

Renner says she recalls Josef Korbel arguing that he was entitled to take the Nebriches' belongings as compensation for having lost everything to the Nazis.

"All his relatives died in concentration camps," she said last week from her home on the shores of Lake Wolfgang near Salzburg. "That is very sad. But it doesn't justify him taking everything from us."

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