NEW YORK — A long register of some 20,000 art works looted by the Nazis in World War II from Jewish families was put online Monday in the hopes of reuniting the paintings and objects with their rightful owners.
The project is a joint initiative by an organization called the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, begun in 2005 with the aim of cross-referencing existing records to build a searchable database.
"Decades after the greatest mass theft in history, families robbed of their prized artworks can now search this list to help them locate long-lost treasures," said Julius Berman, Claims Conference's chairman.
The website www.errproject.org/jeudepaume is freely accessible and was drawn up using the archives of the German agency tasked with cataloguing the plundered art works from 1940 to 1944 -- the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR).
A total of some 260 collections and 269 owners have been identified, and included on the list are scores of works by such famous artists as Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
The online database was drawn up using the dossiers which are today housed in the archives of the French foreign ministry, the US National Archives and the German Federal Archives.
Most of the art works were plundered from collections belonging to French or Belgian families and were gathered up and added to an inventory by the Nazis at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, during the Nazi occupation of France.
Once processed, the works were then shipped out under the orders of Field Marshall Herman Goering to special repositories in Bavaria and Austria.
"The ERR carefully recorded their achievements, in part to control their valuable art loot, but also to justify their activities and increased funding in trying wartime conditions and with competing predators," the database organizers said on the website.
"They went to great pains to register and identify the provenance of a large number of the art objects they seized and to keep track of their wartime destinations, which later proved a blessing for those trying to trace and identify their loot after the war."
The website lists the works and a description, mostly in German but sometimes in French, and in many cases the names of the owners that they were taken from.
"It is now the responsibility of museums, art dealers, and auction houses to check their holdings against these records to determine whether they might be in possession of art stolen from Holocaust victims," said Berman.
Wesley Fisher, from the Claims Conference, said: "The database brings together the scattered records. For the first time it's all searchable, with photographs, details, etc.
"For the first time it looks at everything that was looted and from whom it was looted. In terms of the ability of claiming, it's great," Fisher said, adding that the move will lead to an increased number of cases concerning the organized plunder of artwork in France.
"Now the big next question is: where are these works of art?"
Some of the cases can be resolved fairly easily, such as a painting by 17th century Dutch painter Caspar Netscher, "Young Girl and a Parrot," which has yet to be returned to the family of Belgian collector Hugo Daniel Andriesse.
"I think I saw the painting at an exhibition in Germany last year," historian Marc Mazurovsky told AFP.
But he says matching up the art works with the rightful owners is a delicate and time-consuming operation and the best thing would be "for governments and institutions to take the initiative and contact the families.
"That's what Austria has done. It is going through its collections with a fine tooth comb."
But he added that "these inventories are an incomplete reflection of the reality."
"Where have the hundreds of other objects gone, where are the repertoires, and what the government did after 1945? There is a whole dynamic missing."
In June 2009, 46 nations signed a declaration in Prague to press for the restitution of Jewish assets stolen by the Nazis during World War II and provide social help for impoverished Holocaust survivors.
The non-legally binding text noted that "only a part" of the estimated 17 billion dollars worth of assets taken from Jews has ever been recovered or compensated.