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Book Documenting Looted Nazi Art Donated to National Archives

Historians estimate the Nazis stole up to $2.5 billion worth of artwork during World War II, more than the value of all art in America at the time. The U.S. National Archives Thursday accepted the donation of an original photo album, documenting some of the art the Nazis seized in World War II. It is the 40th volume in a series of albums and provides the original owners evidence of their missing artwork.

VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports on the book and what it means to history.

The leather cover falls apart from its binding, the pages made of cheap quality paper available during the war. But historians call this book priceless. It is full of secrets. Secrets that reveal mysteries surrounding art looted by the Nazis in World War II.

There are 39 previous volumes containing photographs of works of art secured by the Isenstaf. At the Nuremberg Trials, December 18, 1945, 39 so-called "Hitler Albums" were introduced into evidence, books with photos of the art Nazis pilfered from Jewish art collections.

Hitler sold the artwork and used the money to finance the war effort. Large amounts of money were involved.

This album is the first to be found since the Nuremberg trials. It documents 50 paintings, many of them already returned to their rightful owners.

Assistant Archivist Michael Kurtz explains its value. "It shows exactly how widespread the looting was. It's a visualization you can't get just by reading about it or if you study the records."

American entrepreneur and art devotee Robert Edsel donated the first of two albums to the National Archives in Washington, DC. The family of an American soldier gave him the books. Edsel tells us, "This American soldier found this thing. He was stationed near Berchtesgaden in May 1945, at the close of war and he was in Berghof and he picked it up and put it in his backpack and brought it home and there it sat in his attic for many, many years."

Historians estimate there are 85 of these albums, of which only 41 have been recovered. Archivists hope the discovery of this album will lead to more. And then, with more photos, Nazi victims would have proof to reclaim their artwork -- a task easier in the United States than in Europe.

Senior Archivist Greg Bradsher explains the difference. "In America, in most states -- in fact, all states -- have a provision that once something is stolen, it's always stolen. Even if it changes hands several times in good faith, it's still stolen. Many European countries have laws that say if you bought it in good faith and can prove you bought it in good faith, it's yours."

It is a race against time, with pages crumbling and the World War II generation dying off. Edsel adds, "Take a look at what you've got, if you had a parent who fought in World War II, check."

Edsel says if more such mysteries are solved, only then will heirlooms like these paintings return to the families where they belong.

Courtesy: National Archives, Washington, DC