Ludwig van Beethoven’s handwritten manuscript for the fourth movement of his String Quartet in B-flat Major was once in the possession of the richest family in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia. During the Holocaust, Nazis seized it along with the family’s other belongings.
The manuscript eventually ended up at the Moravian Museum in the Czech city of Brno, where it has been stored for more than 80 years. Now, thanks to a restitution law in the Czech Republic, the museum will return Beethoven’s fourth movement to the heirs of that family, the Pescheks.
“We’re sorry about losing it, but it rightly belongs to the Petschek family,” Simona Šindelářová, a curator at the Moravian Museum, tells Karel Janicek of the Associated Press (AP).
Beethoven composed String Quartet in B-flat Major, a six-movement piece, between 1825 and 1826. It was one of a series of quartets the Russian prince Nicholas Galitzin commissioned from Beethoven, and it premiered in spring 1826 at the Musikverein concert hall in Vienna, Austria.
According to a statement from the museum, Beethoven, who died in 1827, gave the piece’s fourth movement to his secretary, Karl Holz. At least two other private owners possessed the manuscript before the Petschek family, who made their fortune in the mining and banking industries. The details of the family’s acquisition of the piece remain unknown, though it took place after World War I, per the museum.
During the military occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis seized the majority of the Petscheks’ belongings and valuables. When they obtained the Beethoven manuscript, they brought it to an expert at the Moravian Museum and asked him to assess whether it was authentic. The expert lied to the Nazis, saying that it wasn’t, Šindelářová tells the AP.
His decision to lie—at great personal risk—worked. The museum was allowed to keep the Beethoven movement.
After World War II, Franz Petschek began fighting for restitution from the United States, where he had fled to. His fight was unsuccessful for decades. Now, in light of a Czech restitution law, the ownership of the manuscript has been transferred to heirs of the Petschek family.
The rest of Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat Major is spread out across libraries, archives and museums in Poland, the U.S., France, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Recent restitution laws around the world are allowing for more returns of Nazi-looted valuables to the heirs of their original owners. Earlier this year, the New York Court of Appeals upheld a high-profile ruling that returned two Nazi-stolen Egon Schiele drawings to the heirs of a Viennese cabaret star, Fritz Grünbaum. Also this year, a Nazi-looted painting was returned to a 101-year-old Dutch woman.
Still, work remains to be done, experts say. “Some 90 percent of all artworks being sought today by families have been neither found nor returned,” Anne Webber, the co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe, said at a restitution conference last month, per the AP.