The last-minute intervention of Germany's culture minister two weeks ago prevented the sale of two paintings that were confiscated by the Nazis from a Jewish art collector in 1937.

The Van Ham Fine Art Auction House in Cologne was set to sell two paintings by Matthys Naiveu, a baroque artist who lived in the Netherlands from 1647 to 1726. The auction house refused to disclose the identity of the paintings' present owner.

Attorney Yoel Levy, who represents the heirs of collector Max Stern, says the paintings, estimated to be worth 20,000 euros each, was part of a collection that the Nazis confiscated from Stern after he fled to Canada in 1937. Stern died in 1987, leaving all his property to Concordia University, in Montreal, and to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Levy asked Van Ham to cancel the sale, as it had not been proved that the paintings did not belong to Stern's heirs. He says Sotheby's had turned down an offer to sell the paintings a few years ago for this reason. When Van Ham ignored his request, he asked Germany's culture minister, Bernd Neumann, to step in.

Two weeks ago, on the eve of the planned sale, Levy was informed that Van Ham had retracted its plan to sell the paintings, and now intended to investigate whether they rightfully belonged to the universities.

Levy says that Neumann's intervention prevented the auction house from violating the agreements of the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Asset, which obliges museums and auction houses to return Nazi-looted art to its owners or their heirs. The Berlin municipality recently had to turn over an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painting from the Brucke Museum in Berlin to its heirs.