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January 10, 2014

Israeli Organization Searches for Art Looted by Nazis

by Mike Richman

International efforts are intensifying to recover and identify items stolen by the Nazis during World War II, including paintings, ceramics, books and religious treasures.  In Israel, a committee is pressing local museums to search their collections for artwork looted by the Nazis. 

Israeli authorities believe more than 1,000 pieces of artwork stolen by the Nazis were sent to Israel for safekeeping after World War II.

An Israeli state-run committee has been assigned to track down unclaimed assets in Israel of Jews killed during the Holocaust.  

On Thursday, the committee convened officials from Israel's major museums for a talk on the search effort.

Israel Peleg is leading the committee.

"We know that after the war at least 400 pieces of art paintings reached the shores of Israel and the museum in Israel.  The Israel museum has already publicized it, and we believe that the research, the provenance research, should be done now by all the museums in Israel, which they are cooperating very carefully with us," said Peleg.

Peleg voiced hope the unclaimed artwork would find its way to descendants of its owners.

"The idea of starting now this effort is a breakthrough in the effort to return to the rightful heirs of the Holocaust victims the pieces of art which belong to their families," he said.

Wesley Fisher is with the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which negotiates for restitution of Jewish-owned property.

He welcomed the Israeli effort.

"As we do our work in the claims conference and in the world Jewish restitution organization, in particular, we very often find that in regard to art works, Judaica, libraries and manuscripts, we cannot reach closure on what went where and find everything without knowing what went to Israel," said Fisher.

The country's largest museum, the Israel Museum, has had success in returning Nazi-looted art to its owners.

The museum houses 1,200 pieces of art stolen during World War II and shipped to Israel when its owners could not be found.  Ten of the pieces have since been handed over to their rightful families.

James Snyder is the museum's director.  

"The Israel Museum, because we're in Israel, we feel that we need to be exemplary in the subject of restitution of art lost in World War II," said Snyder.

The issue of Holocaust victims' unclaimed assets in Israel made headlines three years ago.  At the time, one of Israel's major banks agreed to pay $37 million to survivors and heirs for funds deposited before World War II by Jews who later died in the conflict.