In a disheartening setback for a Chicago-area man who has claimed a multimillion-dollar art collection looted by the Nazis, the Czech government has declared the most valuable of the paintings "national treasures," thereby blocking their return.

The move by the Czech Culture Ministry reflects the erratic record of the government when dealing with restitution claims from Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Though the Czech Republic has passed liberal laws guaranteeing the return of looted works "free of charge," it has invoked a variety of arcane legal codes to prevent the most valuable works from leaving the country.

"With one hand, the Czech government gives these works out, and with the other hand, they take them back, making special deals behind closed doors," said Michaela Hajkova, curator of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

The Jewish Museum has possession of the collection of Emil Freund, a great-great-uncle of Gerald McDonald of west suburban Lyons.

McDonald learned late last year that he was related to Freund and that the Jewish Museum wanted to return Freund's collection to a rightful heir through Czech restitution laws.

Then, last month, the Czech Culture Ministry designated 14 of 30 paintings in the Freund collection national treasures, including the most prized items, Paul Signac's "Riverboat on the Seine" and Andre Derain's "Head of a Young Woman." The Signac alone is valued at more than $1 million, according to art experts.

McDonald feels angry and betrayed.

"Sometimes I feel like just going over there and saying: `Give me that art. It belonged to my great-great-uncle. He was killed by the Nazis. His art does not belong to you,'" McDonald said.

Once the Czechs designate a work a national treasure, it cannot receive an export license. Without the license, the artwork cannot leave the country and be offered for sale on the international market.

The Czech Republic has not been the only European country to block restitution mandated by its own laws. Austria, Hungary, Poland and other nations similarly have held on to Nazi loot.

Officials of the Czech Republic acknowledge that restitution laws often do not return collections to the heirs, but they said their policies reflect national priorities. Pavel Jirasek, director of the Department of Movable Cultural Heritage, Museums and Galleries of the Czech Republic, said the laws on cultural treasures do not conflict with "the sense of restitution."

"I don't think this contradicts the restitution laws, because it's normal in European law; European countries have special laws that protect the national monuments," he said.

In Germany, a new law went into effect in January creating a 30-year statute of limitations on stolen-property cases, which may wipe out an entire class of Holocaust-era claims. Because the law is too new to have been tested in court, Holocaust survivors do not yet know how it will affect their interests.

Like restitution laws, so-called cultural patrimony laws are a relatively recent trend in Europe, dating back about 50 years.

They became popular when buyers in wealthy nations such as the United States--and, later, Japan--began purchasing masterpieces from the economically ravaged nations of post-World War II Europe. Countries such as England, France and Austria responded by passing laws restricting the movement of the increasingly valuable works of art. This included not only works that reflected the nation's culture but also foreign paintings and sculptures that had nothing to do with national identity.

Law versus law

Since the advent of Holocaust restitution laws in the 1990s, some European countries have used these cultural patrimony laws, as well as other statutes, to prevent looted Holocaust-era art from leaving the country.

"Very few of the restitution schemes work the way the countries claim they do," said Steve Thomas, an art-law expert at the Irell & Manella law firm in Los Angeles. "One set of laws will give you the painting, and another set of laws will keep you from getting it. The two sets of laws are not tied but they can be manipulated."

The contest between Holocaust heirs and Czech authorities is gathering intensity. Politicians in Prague are debating in the Czech press whether to reinstate the Benes Decrees, which after WWII voided property transfers or seizures that had taken place under duress during the Nazi occupation. In 1948, the communists who had taken power overruled those decrees.