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Heirs pursue 'lost museum' stolen by Nazis

Matisse
Henri Matisse's "Oriental Woman Seated on A Floor"
December 25, 1997
Web posted at: 8:09 p.m. EST (0109 GMT)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- As it engineered the World War II genocide that took six million Jewish lives, Nazi Germany organized widespread looting of Jewish property -- in particular, Jewish-owned art in France.

Adolph Hitler had a personal interest in art, and he dreamed of displaying the collection in his own museum in Vienna, where he had once studied art.

"By taking what these people had, they were taking over the soul of what these people were," says French journalist Hector Feliciano, who has chronicled the Nazis' theft in his book "The Lost Museum." "They were not only annihilating them physically, there were also annihilating them culturally."

"In the middle of the war, in the middle of the occupation (of France), they are using hundreds of people to loot art," says Feliciano. "They are using fuel for these trucks and trains to get this art into Berlin."

Some of what didn't get to Germany was hidden in underground mines. Thousands of pieces of stolen art and other valuables were found after Germany's defeat.

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CNN's Gary Tuchman reports

But estimates are that about one-fifth of some 100,000 reported lost works are still missing. And this year, the Nazi looting of art has haunted the art world like never before.

Families robbed by the Nazis have been reclaiming prized paintings that have been found hanging in museums around the world. Auction houses have also stopped sales of works because their post-war sellers may have been thieves.

After the war, Allied troops returned thousands of works of art back to the nations from which they were looted. But many of those nations did not make any effort to get those works back to their rightful owners.

"A lot of works that had been taken from Jewish families, it now turns out, are in our museums and in our private collections," says Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the Commission for Art Recovery.

Monet
A Monet work included in "The Lost Museum"

For example, Matisse's "Oriental Woman Seated On A Floor" hangs in the Seattle Museum of Art. But it turns out to have been in the collection of Paul Rosenberg, a top Paris art dealer in the pre-war years whose collection was carried off by the Nazis. Now, his heirs are pursuing legal action to get the Matisse back.

The Seattle museum is being cooperative: "The museum does not want to be in the position, and would not be in the position, of maintaining the possession of something that was proven to be a stolen work of art," said Gail Joyce, the museum's deputy director.

But not everyone is as cooperative as the Seattle Museum of Art. For instance, Rosenberg's family tried, and failed, to regain another painting from a German dealer who is trying to sell it.

1998 will likely bring more discoveries in the so-called "Lost Museum," as the quest for justice by historians reunites families like the Rosenbergs with their rightful treasurers.

Correspondent Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.

 
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