Bare Ruined Choirs : A Western Hunger for Gothic Madonnas and Renaissance Angels Has Fueled the Sacking of Eastern Euopean Churches--and Limited Attempts To Save Them.

Jonathan Kandell is a former New York Times European corresondent. His last article for the magazine was on matador Juan Antonion Ruiz's return to the ring after an injury

Father Tomas Konarik is convinced the devil has run amok in the Bohemian countryside. The slim, 43-year-old Roman Catholic priest presides over eight small parishes with 33,000 souls, but he is no simple-minded backwater cleric. Previously, he had been posted in cosmopolitan Vienna. Yet even that modern-day Gomorrah, he asserts, can't match the evil that lurks in these villages some 100 miles west of Prague.

Hardly a week goes by without another robbery in one of Konarik's churches--a Gothic Madonna, a Renaissance marble saint, Baroque angels of polychrome wood, silver chalices, gold crucifixes and brass candleholders. The pilferage and desecration happen so often that Konarik can sometimes sense when Satan's accomplices are about to strike again. "One Saturday, just before midnight, there was thunder and lightning," he recalls. "As I climbed into bed, I said to myself, 'They will surely come tonight.' The next day, someone phoned to tell me that one of my churches had been desecrated."

The intruders failed to break down the heavy oak door with a pick and ax, so they burrowed through a two-foot-thick wall in the back of the church. Among the several artworks they stole, the most valuable was a Baroque statue of a saint. "That evening, I held services at the church and told my parishioners to pray for the return of the saint," says Konarik. "I never expected God to answer so quickly." Precisely 24 hours later, the police captured the thieves at the German border, just as they were about to hand over the statue to a German accomplice believed to be acting on behalf of an antiquarian. "It was miracle," insists the priest.

Konarik has on occasion personally battled the devil's agents. On another stormy night, the prescient priest and several policemen tackled two thieves--a 50-year-old man and his teen-age son. "We were hiding in the bushes and surprised them before they could break into the church," says the clergyman.

But neither miracles nor bravura could save the most beautiful of Konarik's churches, the Gothic structure that looms majestically on a hill over the village of Horni Slavkov. Thieves deliberately set it on fire to keep away parishioners. Before repairs could be done, the vandalism began. "Now, it's as you see it--a total ruin," says Konarik, standing below the vaulted ceilings in the 200-foot-long nave, with dust and ashes soiling his black cassock. "Everything has been stolen. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque statues and paintings--dozens of them." Even chunks of the ornately carved altar and pieces of the stained glass windows are missing.

Konarik offers his own theological spin on the wave of robberies that has ravaged his country's cultural patrimony--and a theory about when it will stop. "We are living at the end of a millennium," he explains. "Back around the year 1000, there was a rise in paganism and the church had to fight the devil. It's the same now. Satanic forces are taking hold of ordinary people. Only after the year 2000 will evil spirits subside and religion and morality rise again. Whether there will still be art left in our churches by then, well, that's hard to say."

THE OFFICIALS IN CHARGE OF SAFEGUARDING Czech cultural treasures share Father Konarik's doubts that the art thefts can be brought under control before the next millennium. But they offer more secular explanations for the tragic phenomenon. With the fall of Communism, the country's borders have been flung open, making smuggling easy and giving collectors and dealers in the West access to long unavailable artworks. Less fearful of the police, criminals are more brazen, often operating as a version of the more notorious Russian mafia. And unprotected churches, castles and museums make inviting targets.

Czechs are not the only victims. All of Eastern Europe is being stripped by bands of thieves operating on orders from Western collectors and dealers, or using middlemen to place their booty abroad. "These countries are rich in artifacts," says Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the New York-based International Foundation for Art Research, which keeps track of stolen artifacts around the world. "Western European dealers are interested in new merchandise--or merchandise new to their market--and not terribly concerned about how it comes to them. And people in these countries desperately need hard currency. Put it all together and you have today's disastrous situation."

Experts such as Lowenthal believe the looting in Eastern Europe has reached proportions comparable to the ransacking by the Nazis and the Soviet army. Estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the spoils include sacred art ripped from church altars, as well as paintings, sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts and rare coins raided from museums and castles.

Occasionally, robberies are spectacular enough to spur police to make exceptional efforts. Last December, about 200 artifacts were stolen from the Budapest Jewish Museum, virtually stripping Hungary of its most valuable historical inventory of Judaica. But in July, police in Bucharest, Romania, were able to recover most of these works. The year before, a remarkable collection of Russian icons and 19th-Century paintings was intercepted in the Czech Republic en route to Vienna. And in November, 1992, German police recovered eight paintings by Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder that had been stolen from the Weimar Museum in the former East Germany a month before.

But for the most part, the thieves steer clear of artworks renowned enough to appear in international registeries or catalogues, and concentrate on less traceable objects. In January, 1992, thieves stole seven small ancient Roman and Greek bronzes dating from the 1st Century from a museum in Vidin, Bulgaria. In Poland, icons dating from the 14th to 17th centuries were taken from a monastery in Jableczna in September, 1990. In Bucharest, an unknown and unregistered Renaissance painting attributed to Rubens was stolen from a private collection in June, 1993. And in Russia, 14 paintings by several 19th-Century Russian painters were taken from a museum in Sochi in May, 1992. None of the cases, picked randomly from Interpol files, have been solved.

Among the former Communist European countries, the Czech Republic has suffered the greatest losses--and has also embarked on the most ambitious effort to stanch the hemorrhage. The Culture Ministry estimates that 50,000 objects, worth more than $100 million, have been smuggled abroad since 1990. In their attempt to bring this pilferage under control, the Czechs are training hard-nosed cops as art connoisseurs and turning cultural officials into security experts. The campaign has largely been coordinated by two men, Jaroslav Zavadsky and Pavel Jirasek, as odd a couple as one can imagine.

Major Zavadsky heads the Czech national police force's art squad. He works out of Criminal Police Headquarters, one of the sterile, modern eyesores built by Communist planners on the outskirts of Prague, far from the city's famed Renaissance palaces and Baroque churches. He became a cop in 1971 when the Communist regime was at its most repressive stage. Starting on a street beat, he made his way up the ranks to detective of homicides and robberies. Then, in what had to seem like a demotion, he was appointed the country's sole investigator of art thefts in 1981.

"There were so few cases that I could handle them myself," says the 46-year-old major, his graying hair razor-trimmed and his black linen jacket rolled up at the sleeves a la Don Johnson in "Miami Vice." The only art thefts back then were carried out by ranking Communist officials or their proteges who sold pieces mainly to foreign diplomats stationed in Prague. "I was told not to investigate those cases," says Zavadsky.

Nowadays, he has eight full-time investigators, and can call upon 240 police officers across the country who have been given brief, very rudimentary courses in art history and identification at museums and universities. "The instruction is adequate for our purposes," says the major. "It makes more sense than trying to train an art historian as a detective."

Zavadsky's office walls are plastered with reproductions of Old Masters--all of them stolen. His desktop computer tracks many more missing artworks, with details on where and when they were looted. The recovery rate, he concedes, is abysmal--"maybe 8 or 9%." And in his hands is a fresh fax, reporting another art theft over the weekend or perhaps earlier, this time from a church near the city of Brno, southeast of Prague.

"Typical case," says Zavadsky. "There were 13 objects stolen--Baroque angels, a crucifix and candleholders. We don't know when the thieves broke into the church. There are no photos of what the pieces look like. By now, they're probably over the border, in Germany or Austria." The major shrugs and crushes out his fifth cigarette of the morning interview. "But I'll probably bring this up with Jirasek when we meet this afternoon," he adds. "We may need more of his security systems around Brno."

Pavel Jirasek, 33, advises the Ministry of Culture on electronic devices to safeguard museums, castles and major churches, and on software programs to catalogue artworks and identify stolen objects. His tousled blond hair, sleepy eyes, rock-band T-shirt and suit jacket that doesn't match his pants convey the impression that he bolted out of bed to make his office appointment. He works out of a restored Renaissance palace, and his window overlooks an inner courtyard adorned with bronze replicas of Greek mythological figures sculpted by the late 16th-Century artist Adriaen de Vriese. The originals were stolen by Swedish soldiers during a 17th-Century war and are on display near Stockholm--a reminder, says Jirasek, that the looting of Czech art has a long history.

Before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Jirasek was a computer expert at a large state-owned factory and a frequent visitor to art museums after work, particularly when foreign exhibits were on display. He was among the huge throngs who braved the police at Prague's Wenceslas Square in the waning days of Communism. As a dissident, he dreamed about a new era of free cultural exchange between his country and the West. But he has discovered that cultural exchange can be a one-way nightmare. "I never imagined I'd be spending my time trying to keep art from being smuggled abroad," he says. "It has been one of the paradoxes of becoming a more open, democratic country."

Zavadsky and Jirasek were first brought together in May, 1991, when four Picassos were stolen from the National Gallery. The thieves broke into the museum after making their way at night across the adjoining gardens of Prague Castle, once the impregnable fortress of Communist rulers and now the much less guarded palace of President Vaclav Havel. The intruders used a bench from the museum garden to smash through a window. They chose the smallest Picassos they could find, apparently because they were easier to carry, and fled before police arrived, less than five minutes after the break-in began. The paintings were from the artist's early Cubist period, and their market value was estimated at $30 million by gallery officials.

From the beginning of the investigation, Zavadsky was convinced the criminals were former black marketeers. "Under Communism, they were money changers and smugglers," says the major. "They have kept their contacts abroad, and have moved smoothly into art thefts." Dozens of suspects were repeatedly picked up for questioning, and finally, in July, two months after the robbery, four men with long rap sheets as black marketeers were arrested and confessed. Three Picassos were found in an apartment of a relative of one of the thieves. The fourth canvas was retrieved by German police from the baggage deposit at Bayreuth's train station.

"Obviously, the paintings were too famous to go on public sale," says Zavadsky. "So the thieves were planning to sell them to a private collector in Germany. They sent one of the works to Bayreuth as a first step--to show the collector that they really had the art." The thieves are serving prison sentences of four to eight years. They told the police they never knew the name of the collector, dealing instead with an intermediary who used an alias and vanished as soon as he realized the arrests had been made.

The Picasso case, Jirasek says, served as a wake-up call for the government and the public on a problem that was just reaching epidemic proportions. "It couldn't happen again," he says confidently. "We immediately installed tough security systems for our most important museum collections." Eventually, 5,000 cultural properties, including museums, libraries, palaces, castles and churches will be electronically wired to police stations and their collections will be photographed and catalogued.

THE PROGRAM HAD NOT YET been extended to Namesti nad Oslavou, a historic castle near Brno, where thieves broke in and stole 14 Old Masters, among them works by Bellotto and Canaletto, in early 1992. The robbery took place during the off-season when the castle was closed to the public and only a skeleton caretaker staff was on hand. The intruders climbed up to the castle tower along a lightning-rod grounding cable. "It was a very professional job," says Zavadsky. "The thieves were very knowledgeable--they stole only the best paintings. And they cased the castle very thoroughly." Even now, Zavadsky doesn't know the number of criminals involved, or how many days passed before the robbery was discovered.

More than a year later, a London art dealer contacted Constance Lowenthal at the International Foundation for Art Research. He had been offered a Bellotto canvas of a view of Milan for $4 million by a man who claimed it came from the private collection of an old aristocratic Czech family. "The dealer asked if the painting was registered with us," says Lowenthal. She told him it fit the description of a work taken from Namesti nad Oslavou. Suspecting that the dealer had alerted the police, the Czech smuggler disappeared with the Bellotto. Along with the 13 other paintings, its whereabouts remain a mystery.

"It's perfectly possible for major works like these to be almost unknown to Old Master dealers in the West," says Lowenthal. "They were never loaned for major exhibitions abroad. They weren't even published in catalogues. They probably weren't even seen by foreign art historians because under the Communists it was very difficult to get permission to visit cultural sites outside of Prague, especially if they were near a military installation. So a lot of these stolen works get passed on to dealers with very touching but fake stories of distressed families who had to sell their heirlooms or found the paintings in an attic."

What lends credibility to many of these tales is the well-publicized return of exiled aristocrats to reclaim their estates and art in the Czech Republic. After the Communist collapse, the new government passed legislation enabling the former nobility to take back castles and the valuable cultural collections on their premises. "The law isn't meant to distinguish between a factory, a house or a castle--it simply covers all property unjustly seized from their owners by the Communists," says Jara David-Moserova, a former parliamentarian who chaired the committee that pushed through the restitutions. "Old, traditional families tend to have a strong emotional bond with their castles, and the feeling is that they will do a better job than the government in protecting their properties."

But the property transfers often take years to negotiate, and in the interim, the government has drastically cut security at the castles. Even aristocrats who manage to recover their estates often don't have the financial resources to carry out extensive repairs and pay for the personnel and alarm systems necessary for their protection.

Take the case of the Lobkowicz family, aristocrats who were forced into exile by both the Nazis and Communists, who will eventually receive nine castles in the Bohemian countryside north of Prague. The family, which took up residence in Boston more than four decades ago, is by no means wealthy and has sought foundation funds to convert several of the estates into art museums and classical music centers. They have assigned priority to Nelahozeves, a 16th-Century castle built in Italian Renaissance style. The castle's formidable art collection, including paintings by Velazquez, Brueghel, Cranach and Rubens, has been opened to the public and appears well protected by private security guards as well as electronic alarms.

But another Lobkowicz property, Roudnice--a 200-room, Baroque-style castle a few miles away--still houses Czech army troops while negotiations for its return to the family continue. In the meantime, whatever sacred art remained in its chapel has been looted. And at other nearby Lobkowicz castles, valuable manuscripts and furniture have been stolen in the last two years, before new security measures could be put in place.

Not all of the returning aristocrats appear as committed as the Lobkowicz family to preserving their cultural treasures. "Many of them take no precautions against robberies," says Michal Benes, a senior official in the Culture Ministry. "They know so little about their collections that they can't even describe what has been stolen." Others know the value of heirlooms only too well. A countess who recovered an extensive collection of antique furniture immediately sold it to smugglers, according to Benes. Another case cited by Benes involved an Oriental collection that had been loaned to the National Gallery by its owner decades ago to keep it from being expropriated by the Communists. It was recently taken back by some of her heirs and quickly sold before other family members could ensure that the collection be kept on public display.

THE RICHEST--AND MOST vulnerable--portion of the nation's cultural heritage lies in the churches. The Counter-Reformation that crushed a Protestant movement and brought Hapsburg rule to the country in the 1620s sparked an explosion of Baroque art. "Those passionately sculpted angels and Madonnas and saints were the 'propaganda' used to convert us back to Catholicism," says Jiri Setlik, vice rector of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design. "It was a time that also saw a great flourishing of architecture. Many Gothic and Renaissance churches and castles were renovated as the Baroque structures you see today."

Most of this huge inventory of sacred art escaped the destruction wrought in neighboring countries during World War II. Because Czechoslovakia was annexed by the Nazis before the conflict started, relatively few of its cultural treasures were taken back to Germany as trophies. And toward the end of the war, the Germans retreated before the onrushing Red Army without engaging in major battles on Czech soil. Then, under the Communists, some of the most prized sacred artworks were transferred to museums, but the bulk remained in the churches.

"As you would expect, crime was very low under the dictatorship," says Msgr. Evernod Geyza Sidlovsky, who, as a personal aide to Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek during the last years of Communist rule, kept track of the church's cultural property. "It wasn't even necessary to guard churches--people stayed away from them because they didn't want to be considered politically suspect. Now, the churches are an El Dorado for criminals. They can steal from almost any church."

Providing protection to the thousands of churches and chapels spread around the country "is an impossibility," concedes Pavel Jirasek, the Culture Ministry's security aide. The clergy shrank under four decades of Communism, and there are now less than a fifth the number of priests as at the beginning of this century. "That means you have a single priest for 10, 15, sometimes 20 parishes," says Jirasek. "Between services, there is nobody to look after those churches."

Zavadsky estimates that 90% of his cases involve churches. "So much is stolen that we only concentrate on the most valuable objects--a Renaissance painting, certainly, or a Gothic Madonna that has been worshiped by pilgrims for centuries," he says. Otherwise,much of his time out of the office is spent visiting parishes to commiserate with priests and encourage them to install multiple locks on their church doors and bar their windows.

On a recent weekday, he drove in his own Skoda with a colleague to Zbraslav, a village just south of Prague, where a local church, called St. Gallen, has been repeatedly robbed. Built in the 11th Century, the small Romanesque church perches on a hill above the village and its hop fields and forests. Surrounded by an ancient graveyard, St. Gallen is used nowadays exclusively as a funeral chapel. "We usually find out about a new robbery only when someone dies," says Father Bedrich Tupa, the 80-year-old priest who presides over funeral services at St. Gallen and has five other churches to look after.

After the last theft, Tupa ordered a half-dozen locks for St. Gallen's front door, and today, unfortunately, he has misplaced one of the keys. Zavadsky thrusts his hands in his pockets, grimaces and looks skyward. He drives Father Tupa back to his rectory, and after an hour they return with the missing key. It's cold and musty inside the chapel. Thieves have taken all of the statuary--polychrome angels and saints from the Baroque period--and even the altar, except for its base. The few paintings they have left behind are of poor quality and date back no more than a century.

Zavadsky's colleague, Detective Jaroslav Zahalka, has been handling the St. Gallen case, and Father Tupa asks him if he's made any progress on the robberies. "If the perpetrators are part of a very active gang, we may get them eventually," Zahalka replies. "But not the artifacts--too much time has passed."

Back at his rectory, the priest plies his visitors with coffee and wine, and apologizes for the long delay in getting St. Gallen's door open. But Zavadsky reassures him no harm was done, and tells him he wishes all churches were as battened down. Walking to his car, Zavadsky fumbles through his pockets but fails to locate his key. He has left it in the ignition. "My God!" he exclaims, slapping his face with both hands. "Anybody could have taken the car." He drives back to Prague muttering about the consequences had a bank robber used a car stolen from a police major to pull a heist.

AS FRUSTRATIONS RISE OVER THE inability to stop the looting, more attention is being focused on foreign buyers of Czech stolen art. It's no secret that most of these artifacts make their way into antique stores and private collections in neighboring Germany and Austria, countries with Baroque artistic traditions similar to those in the Czech Republic. Neither Germany nor Austria are signatories of the 1970 UNESCO convention prohibiting "the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property." In both countries, laws allow a collector or dealer to keep stolen art if purchased "in good faith"--that is, supposedly with no knowledge that it was stolen. "The Germans and Austrians have a shortsighted policy in not preventing illegal art from being collected in their countries," says Michal Benes, the Czech Culture Ministry's liaison with UNESCO. "Someday, the situation may change. Today, we're the victims. Tomorrow, it may be their turn to lose their art patrimony."

Other close observers of the Czech cultural scene sound even more exasperated. "I can walk down the streets of Munich and Vienna and point out art in the antique shops that is clearly Czech," says Wendy Luers, president of the New York-based Foundation for a Civil Society that, among its other activities, promotes cultural preservation in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. "As far as I know, there is absolutely no control over what is being sold. What the hell are the German and Austrian governments doing about it? It's necessary to light a fire under their ambassadors in Prague."

Pavel Jirasek insists that the Czech foreign and culture ministries have strongly complained to the German and Austrian governments. "We're certainly not satisfied with their efforts," he says.

But perhaps these protests have bypassed the German and Austrian embassies in Prague, neither of which report any pressure from the Czech government over smuggled art. "In the two years I've been here, I've never heard of any representation made to us on the subject," says Christiana Markert, press officer at the German Embassy.

The Czechs also can be just as remiss as their neighbors in clamping down on art smuggled into their country from other Eastern European nations. Jirasek estimates that roughly 10,000 such cultural objects are transported through the Czech Republic every year, and concedes that many of them end up being sold here. The most notorious black market for foreign art is held every weekend about 90 miles west of Prague in Karlovy Vary, the famous spa town formerly known as Carlsbad. On a recent Saturday evening, hundreds of cars were parked along the highway outside the city's empty sports stadium. Their owners were Russians, Poles, Slovaks and Hungarians offering a treasure trove of icons, religious statuary, antique furniture, even cuckoo clocks, from the hoods and trunks of their vehicles. If any police were around, they weren't wearing uniforms.

Zavadsky says he is well aware of the city's black market, but claims that arrests aren't made because it is difficult to prove the merchandise is stolen.

But it's harder to explain why the Czechs seem unable to prevent illegal art sales in their own antique shops. At the Culture Ministry, Daniela Vokolkova is an art historian in charge of keeping tabs on stolen artifacts among Prague's antiquarians. From her file cabinet, she withdraws a packet of about 100 photographs of sacred artworks--Madonnas, crucifixes, angels--sent to her by local antique dealers who are seeking certificates from the ministry attesting that the works came from private collections and can thus be legally sold. "The stories about their provenance sound very believable," says Vokolkova. "In fact, almost all the pieces are stolen from churches. So I'm certainly not going to recommend they be given certificates."

But Vokolkova blanches when asked if she intends to turn over the photographs to the police art squad as evidence. "I'm afraid," she says, running her fingers nervously through her long, loose hair. "I've received threatening phone calls from the mafia. I don't even visit the antique shops anymore because I'm scared I'll be recognized."

Somewhat skeptical, I ask Pavel Jirasek if Vokolkova is exaggerating. He explains that the Czech mafia isn't nearly as violent as the Russian underworld and that there have been no reported murders linked to the art trade. "But unfortunately, the mafia scares many people," says Jirasek. "And she lives alone with her two children." Would he be scared by anonymous phone calls? "Well, no," he responds, "but I'm a man."

On parting, Vokolkova points me in the direction of some well-known antique shops where she says I'm bound to find stolen articles. Most of these antiquarians are located in Prague's Old Town, across the Charles Bridge, a magnet for tourists. At a nearby rare bookstore, I come across 16th- and 17th-Century Venetian texts--one a history of Augustus Caesar, the other a religious commentary. On their inside covers, new paper has been pasted over faintly visible library markings that might indicate the manuscripts were stolen.

In an antique shop a block away, there are several Baroque polychrome wood angels and Madonnas that show clear signs of having been ripped off a wall or altar.

The dealer claims that they come from private collectors--hard-pressed aristocratic families who had chapels in their castles. When I ask the price for a Madonna, he quotes several thousand dollars, but quickly adds that a recent law forbids him from selling objects of such high cultural value to foreigners. "Why not have a Czech friend buy it for you?" he proposes. "Then take it back to America."

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