After 69 years, Tugendhat family wants villa returned

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno is the Czech Republic's only UNESCO site built in the 20th century. Considered a masterpiece of Modernism, the opulent family home was completed in 1930. In December, members of the Tugendhat family submitted a petition to have the house returned to their possession. But the city of Brno, the villa's current legal owner, doesn't want to give it back.

Grete and Fritz Tugendhat only lived eight years in their dream home, which was deigned by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. When German troops occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Tugendhats, who were Jewish, fled the country. Now, nearly 70 years later, three descendants are asking for it back.

Augustin Kohoutek is their lawyer.

"The law on the basis of which the return of the villa is requested, is the law pursuant to which pieces of art confiscated during Holocaust are returned. And we strongly believe the villa is absolutely a unique piece of art."

The city of Brno disputes that. At issue is the question of whether, under restitution law, a home can be considered a work of art. Pavel Zara is a spokesman for city hall.

"By our definition of the law, Villa Tugendhat is real estate, not a work of art. A work of art would be a painting, for instance, or something you can move around. It's not a piece of land or a building on it. And for that reason, we can't consider returning it.

In 2001, amid much fanfare, the Villa Tugendhat became a UNESCO World Heritage site. But time has not been kind to the building, and visitors are often struck by the peeling paint and cracks in some walls.

Last autumn, the city of Brno began a bidding process for the reconstruction of the villa, but the competition was put on hold after a court found irregularities in the bidding. The heirs of Fritz and Grete Tugendhat decided they had to act, says Augustin Kohoutek.

"The main reason is that the family was very much frustrated by circumstances which surrounded the public tender of the reconstruction of the villa. Because there was apparently some kind of corruption. So the family was very frustrated by that. So the primary interest to have villa reconstructed and left open for public."

One of the villa's claimants is the philosopher Ernst Tugendhat, who was once a visiting professor at Charles University in Prague, and who spend the first eight years of his life in the villa. Another claimant is Daniela Tugendhat-Hammer, a professor of art history in Austria who has been active in efforts on behalf of the villa's upkeep since the Velvet Revolution.

Unless the Tugendhats and the city of Brno come to an agreement, a court will decide who should be the villa's true owner.