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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008, 18:58 GMT
Looted art seeks owners in Jerusalem
By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

Looking for Owners, the new exhibition at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, is like peering through painted windows of the past.

Museum director James Snyder in front Time Conquered by Cupid, Venus and Hope, by Simon Vouet
James Snyder says the exhibits have special significance to Israel
It is the first time that art looted in France by the Nazis and never re-claimed is on display in Israel.

James Snyder, the director of the Israel Museum, says hosting the exhibits in Israel, the Jewish state, has special significance.

"The state of Israel itself, in a way, grew from the ashes of the tragedy of WWII so it is very meaningful in a sentimental way and in an emotional way to have an exhibition on the subject of works taken during the War, here in Israel," he said.

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis looted, destroyed and hoarded art on a scale unprecedented in history.

The exhibition's catalogue shows black and white pictures of German warehouses packed full of paintings. There is even one of Hitler beaming as he receives a work of art on his birthday.

Hundreds of thousands of paintings were stolen by the Nazis from Jewish families and others. If you include furniture, sculptures and other artefacts, experts say the figure soars in to the millions.

Some items were destined to enrich the personal collections of prominent Nazis, others were swapped on the international art market for artefacts considered more "desirable" and less "degenerate" in the Third Reich. Some were simply sold to fill the coffers of Nazi Germany.

Famed artists

In France alone, an estimated 100,000 paintings were stolen. After the war, thousands were found stashed away in German salt mines, depots and private homes.

Isabelle le Masne de Charmont
We want to show the efforts made by France, even now, more than 60 years after the war, to find the rightful owners of the artwork
Exhibition curator Isabelle le Masne de Charmont
Most were returned to France and either reclaimed or auctioned but about 2,000 paintings remain unclaimed.

These include works worth millions of dollars by famed European artists such as Claude Monet, Eugene Delacroix and George Seurat.

The French curator of the exhibition, Isabelle le Masne de Charmont, says her government decided to assemble the works partly as a tribute to memory, but also to show the efforts made by France, even now, more than 60 years after the war, to find the rightful owners of the artwork.

The unclaimed works of art have also been archived online for the public to view, in an effort to help return more art.

Whether its paintings are Monets or minor works by unknown artists, this exhibition is about more than art.

It is about the history of those who stole it and the people the works were stolen from. For some of those visiting the Israel Museum, the paintings are a last tangible link to a family lost or a past destroyed.

Sense of loss

Holocaust survivor Norbert Seigal came from Tel Aviv to see the exhibition. It brought back a lot of memories, he told me.

Norbert Seigal inspects Woman in Turban (anonymous)
I didn't know what they were doing at the time but I know now they were looking for paintings
Norbert Seigal
"I was born in Tschernowitz, then part of Romania. It was known as a cultural city, full of painters. I was a little boy when the Nazis came in 1941 but I remember when German soldiers broke down the door of our house with guns and started looking at the walls.

"I didn't know what they were doing at the time but I know now they were looking for paintings. My parents and I stood there with our hands up, waiting for the end. But they didn't kill us, they sent us to a concentration camp instead."

Leah Oz-Ari said she grew up feeling the terrible losses caused by the Holocaust, even though she was born in Israel.

"I remember my mother crying a lot. She lost all her family. My father used to search the newspapers desperately for news, to know if any of his family had survived.

"It's so important to me to be able to come to this exhibition and see what people and countries have done to save these paintings. To me, it's more important than seeing the paintings themselves. It's very emotional."

There is an international effort under way to return art stolen by the Nazis. But many collectors died in concentration camps.

The paintings they left behind are a surviving testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust.

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