To Quell Doubts, France Exhibits Nazi-Looted Art Some 1,000 Works Plundered during World War II Are Still Unclaimed by Rightful Owners

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Visitors streaming past the new exhibit on the ground floor of Paris's Orsay museum aren't lingering to ponder each work. While some of the 130 paintings and drawings on display here are worth a longer look, many are not up to the quality of work usually hung on these walls, and others are outright fakes. But all are in need of a rightful owner.

This is the first in a series of exhibitions this month of artwork looted by the Nazis during World War II, returned to France, and "provisionally" absorbed into French national collections. Tomorrow, 857 other works of art will go on display in the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Center (the museum of modern art), and 120 regional French museums.

Critics say France hasn't tried hard enough in the last 50 years to find the legitimate owners, many of whom were Jewish collectors sent away to Nazi death camps or forced to quickly sell their property in a bid to avoid them. France's national museums want to show that the critics are wrong - and to avoid the international criticism Swiss banks face over delays in answering questions about benefits from Nazi plunder of Jewish victims. "My decision to display these works this year in major national museums is in the interest of transparency. I want to show that the reality is more complex than rumors that say French museums have hidden 'treasures' stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis," said Culture Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy as he launched this exhibition April 2. Of the 61,000 objects brought back from Germany in 1945, more than 45,000 were restored to their owners by 1949, says Mr. Douste-Blazy. Of 15,000 remaining works, "including empty frames and blank canvases," most were sold. Some 2,000 were kept in Paris or loaned out to regional French museums. "Masterpieces are rare, even if they're not completely absent, and important works are permanently displayed and clearly marked MNR {Musees Nationaux Recuperation, or National Recovery Museums}," he adds. Unlike some other countries, France never established a deadline for requesting restitution for stolen artworks, despite three legislative efforts to do so. In the former Soviet Union, for example, stolen Nazi art was viewed as a "trophy" of war. Museum officials insist that France never completely absorbed recovered Nazi art into its collection and has always been open to claims for restitution. This month's exhibitions aim to set aside doubts on this point. For example, the new labels on these lost works give as much information as is known about a painting's past ownership. douard Manet's "Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase" was purchased by Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1941 for 1 million French francs. Georges Seurat's "Ruins at Grandcamp" was owned by an anonymous German officer. Albert Hertel's "Still Life With a Turkey" was "perhaps bought from the antique dealer CFE Schmidt" and destined for Hitler's Linz museum. …


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