As a boy in pre-war Czechoslovakia, Baron Vladimir Reisky de Dubnic played cowboys and Indians at his ancestral home in the rolling hills of the Bohemian countryside. Now he is fighting a more complex battle: for the return of a multimillion pound art collection hanging in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which he says is rightfully his.
Which is why, earlier this year, the Baron wrote to the gallery, explaining that he is willing to - indeed, has a right to - pay for the pictures. The gallery's collection is worth an estimated pounds 250m: he is offering pounds 9,000. This, he says, is the price that his great-great-great-great grandfather, Stanislaw II, the last king of Poland, agreed to pay in the 1790s. "It all depends on whether I can find a piece of paper saying he paid for them," he explains over coffee and biscuits.
If the Baron gets his way, he will claim all of the gallery's 180 Old Masters, including three Rembrandts, a Poussin, a Canaletto and a Rubens, which were first collected by two London art dealers, Noel Desanfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois on the orders of Stanislaw. The king planned to take them to Warsaw. But, after the partition of Poland by Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1795, Stanislaw went into exile. Desanfans and Sir Francis kept the paintings, eventually bequeathing them to the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
I had come to the castle at Vilemov, a village of a few hundred inhabitants which lies just over an hour's drive east of Prague, to see the Baron in his natural habitat. It turns out to be suitably grand: a baroque facade painted in ochre and white, set beside a well-tended lawn and grand ornamental gate. (There's even a croquet lawn - the first in central Europe, apparently.) Inside, in the spacious, carefully renovated rooms hang weighty oils of noble ancestors and Polish royalty. These days, the servants have been reduced to a woman from the village who comes in to cook and a handyman- cum-driver who lives on the estate. No matter, the spell the place casts is that of a lost era - Habsburg Europe, with its emperors and waltzes, ballrooms and aristocrats.
Yet for all the old-worldliness of his lifestyle, the 77-year- old Reisky is not quite the eccentric, blue blood of stereotype. A retired politics teacher at Harvard University, he retains the air of a pedagogue, expressing his opinions in considered, incisive sentences and in an accent more American than European. The Baron may prove a doughty opponent for the custodians at Dulwich.
Nor is he unfamiliar with retrieving "lost" property. He has already reclaimed Vilemov castle from the Czech state, when he returned in 1991 after living in the US for 40 years. "The people in the village knew that we had been persecuted so they were glad," he says. "One woman told me how glad she was that I had come home, because she remembered that I always said I would, when I left after the war."
The Baron's story, and that of his family, mirrors the history of the century. The Gestapo confiscated Vilemov in 1942, looting its fine collection of pictures, carpets and antique guns. The Reiskys were thrown out of Vilemov and forced to move to a small flat in Prague. So Vladimir joined the Czech underground, returning home at the end of the war in a stolen German car, armed with a Soviet sub- machine gun.
That same year, 1945, the Red Army captured Vilemov, where Soviet soldiers used the Reiskys' ancient Chinese vases for target practice. The castle was returned to the family almost immediately, only to be confiscated again three years later by the Communists. They argued that, as the Nazis had once taken the castle, it did not belong to the Reiskys. "My father protested, but to no avail. So we had to leave and go to Prague again," the Baron says. When the Communists began to seal the borders, Vladimir fled west. He would not return until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. …