Yet Hector Feliciano can be the most menacing of men to the world's museum directors and art collectors.
Mr. Feliciano, a Puerto Rican journalist who has lived for years in Paris, wrote ''The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art.'' Using material from German looting inventories, recently declassified documents and more than 200 interviews with art dealers, art historians, military officers and the survivors of the Jewish collectors, Mr. Feliciano unearthed a tale remarkable both for the scope of the Nazis' systematic greed and for its long period in obscurity.
The book rocked France, which in April -- some 16 months after its publication there -- was forced to put on display nearly 2,000 looted works that had been quietly integrated into its museum collections. Dozens of claims ensued. Although only one painting has so far been returned -- a Cubist landscape by Albert Gleizes at the Pompidou Center went back to the family of Alphonse Kann, a wealthy collector and dealer -- the book, published in the United States with new material in June, may ultimately have a huge impact worldwide. Mr. Feliciano has put a spotlight on an estimated 20,000 looted works whose whereabouts remain unknown; each one is owned by a museum or a collector somewhere.
All across Europe, the Nazis confiscated artworks from prominent Jewish collectors and from dealers whose galleries were ''Aryanized,'' or taken over. Ordinary people, too, lost their art treasures, left behind in their homes when they fled to freedom or were sent to death camps. During the war and in the confusion afterward, many of these works, by artists from Manet to Courbet to Picasso, were gladly taken by museums, no questions asked. Others fell into dealers' hands and were exported for sale around the world.
When Mr. Feliciano, who is 45, began researching the book eight years ago, he did not fathom the story's dimensions, but he knew he had a date with history. Now Mr. Feliciano, who is sometimes recognized on the streets of Paris, says that the experience put him through a crucible.
It reinforced his belief in the power of the written word. ''Public opinion has changed,'' he said. ''We are talking about ethics in museums and at art dealers and auction houses.'' On the other hand, he reflected, it taught him something about human nature. ''When war starts, something goes berserk in the minds of people -- a spring breaks, like in a watch and it doesn't function,'' he said. He wishes he had added an opening quote to his book. It would have read ''I am a wiser, but sadder, man,'' he said. ''You know, the line from Coleridge, or was it Thackeray? I read it when I was 14 or 15.''
It was Coleridge, in ''The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,'' who wrote: ''A sadder and a wiser man, he rose the morrow morn.''
At this late October noontime, however, Mr. Feliciano was chipper. A few days before, the heirs of Paul Rosenberg, a Parisian art dealer whose losses were detailed in ''The Lost Museum,'' had laid claim to a Matisse painting in the Seattle Art Museum. Someone reading his book had identified the work, ''Oriental Woman Seated on Floor,'' and had called the Rosenberg family. Not surprisingly, Mr. Feliciano himself gets a lot of calls like that.
Lifting his mood even more, Mr. Feliciano easily identified more heroes than villains when asked to reflect on his last eight years. Yes, the French Government ministries and museums shut him out, refusing to let him see their records, stalling and then stalling some more, until he finally gained access through information requests lodged by the victims' families. But there was also a mole in the Ministry of Culture who came up to him at a conference and offered help in proving that the French museums mingled the looted works with their collections.
''He gave me all the documents sent from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Justice, and he confirmed the psychological attitude,'' Mr. Feliciano said. ''To this day, every two or three weeks he still sends me new documents.''
A One-Way Ticket To Paris and Art
Mr. Feliciano also encountered some people who straddled the hero-villain divide, like Alfred Daber, a very chatty 92-year-old art dealer who remembered all the wartime gossip. ''Nature sent me this gift, I thought,'' Mr. Feliciano said. But then he went to Washington to work in the National Archives. ''I found that Daber had been dealing in looted art,'' Mr. Feliciano said. ''He never mentioned that. He didn't lie, but he would say 'I forgot' or 'I'm tired -- we'll see each other next week' '' when the questions got close to his dubious dealings.
As Mr. Feliciano speeds enthusiastically though these tales, his Spanish accent still intact, he does not dispute that he is not an obvious protagonist for this story. In fact, he said, if his own family had had its way, he would be a doctor like his father, not a journalist.
But as a youngster in San Juan he watched how hard his father worked, often reading late into the night to keep up with medical developments. Seeing that as a doctor he, too, would have no time for art and culture, Mr. Feliciano rebelled. He came to the United States to study history at Brandeis University and after graduation in 1974, bought a one-way ticket to Paris. ''This was a big thing,'' he said. ''My father didn't talk to me for almost a year.''
After earning three additional degrees in literature at the University of Paris and working for three years in the cultural affairs bureau of the City of Paris, Mr. Feliciano started his career as a journalist in Paris, first for The Washington Post and then The Los Angeles Times.
In 1988, as he was reporting on a stolen Murillo painting that had been bought by the Louvre, ''someone said to me that 20 percent of the looted art is still missing,'' Mr. Feliciano recounted. ''I thought 'that's enormous,' and I started asking questions. And I realized that no one had ever asked the looted families about this.'' Occasionally, he said, an incident -- perhaps about a specific work -- would merit a small article; then the subject would die.
The reasons for that are many, he said. For a start, the French museums would be poorer without these paintings, and had a vested interest in maintaining silence. At the time, the Berlin wall was still standing and the cold war still dominated politics. ''I asked people why they never investigated,'' Mr. Feliciano said, ''and they said they had more important problems to deal with.''
The victimized families never asked questions either. ''They said they were so happy to live that they didn't ask for material things,'' he explained. What is more, he added, referring to a common phenomenon, ''They were guilty to have survived.''
At first, Mr. Feliciano feared that none of them would talk to an outsider. But as things turned out, he said, he benefited from being a foreigner. Emotions about the war and the German occupation still run deep in France, where one brother may have resisted while another collaborated. ''I could not be associated with any side,'' he said. ''So I wasn't defending anything. It would be dangerous to say that only a foreigner could do it, but it did help me.''
All five families whose stories form the core of the book -- the Rothschilds, the Rosenbergs, the Bernheim-Jeunes, the David-Weills and the Schlosses -- trusted Mr. Feliciano with their records and their memories, and several opened other doors for him.
For years, Mr. Feliciano worked on the book in his spare time, finishing his regular job at 8 or 9 P.M. and working until 3 or 4 or 5 A.M. on the book. Then came sleep. By 11 A.M., he was back at the office. Only three people knew what he was doing: the woman he lives with and another couple. To keep track of what he calls ''an investigative delight,'' Mr. Feliciano constructed an elaborate wall chart.
Writing the book, meanwhile, posed at least one problem that tore at his heart. ''I knew I should put the Hitler and Goring chapter in the beginning to show that the looting would not have taken place at this level if Hitler and Goring had not been interested in art,'' he said. But their intense interest and sophisticated eye for art, he said, conflicted with his belief that art is supposed to be uplifting, even spiritual.
Publication did not come easily either. Mr. Feliciano tried publishers in the United States first, but after rejection by about 30 (including HarperCollins, which bought the rights after the book's success in France), he turned to France, where it was picked up almost immediately, though for an advance of a mere $7,000. Mr. Feliciano bankrolled himself after he quit his newspaper job to write full-time. ''I'm still paying about $5 a book,'' he said with a grin.
For people tracking stolen art, the book has proved its worth. Thomas E. Starnes, a Washington lawyer who represents several heirs, said: ''We see names in records that may mean nothing to us, but if you cross-reference them with his book, you may see things that you wouldn't have known before. It would have been impossible for a lawyer representing a family to look through all the archives and all the records that he did.''
More Writing, Not Detecting
In France, Mr. Feliciano -- who is now editor in chief of World Media Network, a newspaper syndicate serving 23 European newspapers -- said the media attention he has received is ''incredible.'' And it continues. Whenever the French art establishment tries to ignore his queries, he calls reporters or writes an Op-Ed piece for the likes of Le Monde.
His family, back in San Juan, is proud. His father, who has the same name, even signs copies of the book: ''He says I'm not there, so he writes 'the father of Hector Feliciano.' ''
Mr. Feliciano himself is clearly hooked. He is writing a follow-up to ''The Lost Museum,'' even though he could earn more money acting as a detective for those who have lost art. Several families have made such offers, which he politely declined. ''I would have to stop writing, and I like being a journalist,'' he said. ''The fact that I got no money gives me freedom.''