Dispute of a different color


Lippizaners: With pride and money at stake, Austria and Slovenia wrangle over the rights to the high-stepping horses' name.

January 15, 2000|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LIPICA, Slovenia -- In the autumn of 1943, during the systematic plunder of all that lay within its grasp, Hitler's army snatched about 200 prize Lippizaner stallions and mares from their ancestral home, a 400-year-old stud farm in Lipica, Slovenia.

The horses, famous for their white coats and high-stepping dressage at Vienna's Spanish Riding School, were shipped to a stud farm in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. There they remained until Nazi Germany collapsed in May 1945.

Gen. George S. Patton's troops were in Austria, and it was clear from the fighting that the Russians would soon be the postwar masters of Czechoslovakia.

Patton, a former Olympic horseman, saw no reason that the Russians should get the Lippizaners as part of the deal. A few days after the formal German surrender, he dispatched a unit that included five tanks to snatch the horses from under the noses of the Soviet army.

The daring caper succeeded. The Lippizaners were brought across the border to Austria, an exploit that was mythologized in the 1963 Disney movie "The Miracle of the White Stallions."

The story did not end happily for all concerned, and the horse breed, described as "a masterpiece of nature and the human mind" is at the center of a recent controversy involving money and national honor.

The question of who should possess rights to the name of the animal has led to recriminations and a political crisis, and it is part of an international trade dispute.

The argument began at the end of the war when Allied authorities divided the herd between Austria and Italy. Each got about 100 horses. Eleven 11 horses were returned to the stud farm in Lipica, even though Slovenia, the rightful owner, was then a part of the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia, which had fought on the Allies' side against Hitler.

This obscure bit of history recently resurfaced in an unlikely venue, Geneva, before the World Trade Organization's committee that resolves disputes over intellectual property rights. Slovenia, an independent state, notified the WTO in the fall that it was claiming exclusive rights to the name Lippizaner (Lipicanec in the Slovenian language) as a protected national symbol.

Austria, which sees the Lippizaners not only as part of its national patrimony but also as a healthy source of tourist revenue, was outraged.

The property-rights argument began a year ago when Italy and Austria, members of the European Union, agreed between them that, in accordance with EU guidelines, Austria would be the official keeper of the Lippizaner studbooks. In the arcane world of horse breeding, studbooks are the Bible and Holy Grail.

Slovenia, a candidate for EU membership, was not consulted, and that quickly became a sore point.

"There was a lot of publicity in Slovenia. It created a political crisis. People were demanding the resignation of the foreign minister," said Bojan Pretnar, director of the Slovenian government's intellectual property office.

Going over the head of the EU, Slovenia filed its appeal with the WTO, whose rules take precedence over regional organizations'.

Slovenia asked the WTO to recognize "Lippizaner" as a geographical indication. Similarly, France has successfully reserved the designation "champagne" solely for sparkling wines produced in its Champagne region.

If Slovenia's claim is upheld by the WTO, it will be the first time a geographical indication has been applied to an animal.

The Austrian government argues that animals, unlike plants or food products, should not be entitled to protected geographical indications because animal breeds are defined by their genes, not their place of origin.

For Austrians and Slovenians, the Lippizaners are more than an animal breed. "They are part of the cultural heritage of both countries," Pretnar said. "A lot of symbolic value is at stake here."

The Lippizaners owe their fame to the Spanish Riding School and its baroque performance hall in Vienna's Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace complex. Tickets for performances are usually sold out weeks in advance.

The Slovenian government, in its filing before the WTO, said the Spanish Riding School can keep its dancing horses but can't call them Lippizaners. The Lippizaner name, the government contended, can be traced to Slovenia.

The stud farm at Lipica was founded in 1580 by the Viennese Hapsburgs, whose empire stretched from the Philippines to Peru. Lipica, then known as Lippizan, was part of the realm.

Horses from Spain, Italy and Arabia were brought to Lipica to be crossbred with indigenous stock. The result was the white Lippizaner.

After World War I brought the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Slovenia and the Lipica stud farm fell under Italian control, and the Austrians began breeding Lippizaners, from Lipica stock, at a stud farm near Graz.

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