JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's leading museum opened an exhibition on Monday of art that was looted by the Nazis in France and has never been reclaimed by its owners, many of whom were Jewish collectors killed in the Holocaust.
It is the first time the art, on loan from French museums, has been displayed in Israel and organizers hope that as well as exploring its dramatic history, the exhibition may prompt the families of the paintings' rightful owners to come forward.
Some 100,000 paintings and other art works were taken from France to Germany during World War Two. Many were stolen, after Hitler drew up a secret wish list and ordered his troops to plunder French museums and private salons. Some were sold.
After the war ended, thousands of paintings were found stashed away in German salt mines, depots and private homes. About 60,000 items were returned to France and either reclaimed or auctioned.
But about 2,000, including works worth millions of dollars by famed European artists such as Eugene Delacroix, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat, have not been reclaimed by their owners, many of whom are presumed dead.
Most of the works are held by French museums.
"There is a resonance between the art and the state of Israel ... which grew from the ashes of the tragedy of the war," James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, told reporters. "This exhibition is a kind of memorial to our loss in Europe."
KEEPING ALIVE THE MEMORY
The exhibition "Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art stolen in France during World War II", sponsored by the French government, features 53 of the unclaimed works of art.
Some were stolen from wealthy Jewish dynasties such as the Rothschild banking family, and were found on the walls of senior Nazis such as Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering.
As well as the exhibition, which will be shown in Paris later this year, all 2,000 works of art stolen by the Third Reich and not claimed have been archived on-line for the public to view, in an effort to help return more art to its owners.
One work, Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch's 1658 "La Buveuse", was stolen from the Rothschild family at the personal request of Hitler. It was eventually returned to the family and they later donated it to the Louvre museum in Paris.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy unleashed a row over religion in secular France last week when he called for schoolchildren there to "adopt" Jewish child victims of the Holocaust.
French Culture Minister Christine Albanel, in Israel to open the exhibition, told reporters that although French efforts to return art looted by the Nazis pre-dated Sarkozy's comments, both actions stemmed from a "very strong desire" to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust.
The Israel Museum also opened a parallel exhibition called "Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocaust" featuring lesser known works, including Jewish ceremonial objects, that were stolen by the Nazis in Europe and later sent to Israel.
"These objects truly are orphaned because we have absolutely no idea where they came from," said Snyder.