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Art looted by Nazis returns to Jewish owners

A man looks at a poster reading "Census of Jews" displayed in an exhibition at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, Feb. 12. The French state prepares to give back seven stolen Nazi-era paintings - four of which are in the Louvre - to two Jewish families, after a decade-long tug of war. It ends years of struggle for the two families, whose claims were all validated by the French prime minister last year. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

The French government has announced that seven paintings seized by the Nazis from Jewish collectors and art dealers in France during World War II are to be returned to their rightful owners.

Three of the paintings are kept in the illustrious Louvre, while four others hang in French national museums.

They were part of a massive haul of 100,000 art works stolen in France by occupying Nazi forces during WWII at the behest of leader and failed art student Adolf Hitler.

The return of the paintings marks welcome progress in a decades-long battle waged by the descendants of the Jewish owners whose collections were plundered during the occupation.

The French government recovered about 60,000 art works following the war, of which about 45,000 were returned to their rightful owners, and another 10,000 were sold on the open market. But at the time, ownership of the balance could not be traced – many of the owners had perished in the Holocaust – and the search for their descendants effectively ceased in 1950.

But Puerto Rican journalist and author Hector Feliciano ignited an explosive debate in France in 1995 with the publication of his book, “The Lost Museum,” in which he listed the looted art then hanging in French museums and accused the government of not doing enough to track the art works’ proper inheritors.

The French government had “stonewalled” Feliciano's research at the time and he was forced to turn to U.S. archives to complete his book.

The French government finally relented and staged an exhibition of more than 1,000 of 2,058 pieces then housed in its national collections.

Six of the seven paintings to be returned – all 17th and18th century works with religious themes – will be returned to 82-year-old American Thomas Selldorf, a grandson of businessman and art collector Richard Neumann, who first fled Vienna for Paris, then Spain, before finally landing in Cuba.

The other painting by Dutch artist Pieter Jansz van Asch will go back to the family of Czech banker Josef Wiener who died en route to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942.

The London Times today reports that British officials say they are ready to accept new claims for looted art in its collections. Arts Council England’s senior policy adviser Gerry McQuillan said a British panel had already returned seven looted paintings since 2001.

Elsewhere around the world descendants of the rightful owners continue their pursuit.

Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller










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