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Friday, February 12, 1999 Published at 01:37 GMT

World: Europe

Austria to return looted art

Looted: Frans Hals' Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman

Austria has agreed to return to the Rothschild banking family some 250 works of art which were looted by the Nazis and absorbed into state museums after World War II.

The Minister of Cultural Affairs, Elisabeth Gehrer, said the restitution signalled a new awareness by Austria in dealing with its past.

"With this restitution we want to demonstrate a piece of justice," she said

"We are determined to continue the path that began with establishing the origin of these art works," she said.

Fleeing the holocaust

The Austrian branch of the Rothschild family had an extensive art collection but like other Austrian Jews fled abroad to escape the holocaust.

Last year, the government set up a commission of experts to trace the origins of art stolen during the war.

Correspondents say the return of part of the Rothschild collection marks a first step in returning thousands of other pieces of art to their rightful owners.

Paintings, antique furniture and coins worth millions of dollars are to be returned.

The most valuable items in terms are three paintings by the 17th century Flemish artist Frans Hals which have been displayed in the Vienna Museum of the History of Art.

All of the objects were taken from collections of Alphonse and Clarice Rothschild and Louis Rothschild.

Bettina Looram-Rothschild, a daughter of Alphonse and Clarice Rothschild, expressed joy at the decision.

"I still cannot grasp that after 50 years the works are being returned," she said. "It is a wonderful feeling."

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