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An Irish museum was formally cleared Friday of claims that its founders were Nazi spies who bought art works from dealers trafficking in items stolen from Jews.

The report from U.S. expert Lynn Nicholas, published by the Royal Irish Academy following two investigations over three years, called the Simon Wiesenthal Center's allegations "unprofessional in the extreme."

Nicholas found no evidence that the late John and Gertrude Hunt - founders of one of Ireland's best-loved museums, the Hunt Museum in Limerick - did anything wrong. She did call for further research of the museum's pieces, most of which are undocumented.

Nicholas, Washington-based author of The Rape of Europa and other works examining the World War II art world, harshly criticized the Wiesenthal Center, the world's major Nazi-hunting pressure group, for making personally abusive claims based on threadbare evidence.

"It is, of course, important to recover and return items unlawfully taken during World War II, but it is equally obligatory, in the pursuit of justice, to protect people and institutions from unproven allegations," Nicholas said.

Nicholas said the Wiesenthal Center's primary documentary basis for its allegation was an Irish army intelligence file on Gertrude Hunt, who was German. Such files - kept on more than 500 German nationals during the war - are open to the public in a Dublin archive.

She said the center's Paris-based director of international liaison, Shimon Samuels, was irresponsible not to have acknowledged from the start this was his source.

Samuels in 2004 claimed - in a public letter to Irish President Mary McAleese and a string of Irish media interviews - that the Hunts were suspected Nazi spies and buyers of Holocaust victims' art. He declined to reveal his source.

Nicholas said the file included three letters from April 1944 to November 1946 to the Hunts from Alexander von Frey, a Swiss-based dealer who did purchase Nazi loot. She said the letters show the two parties spoke, but contain no evidence the Hunts purchased a single art work from anybody, much less one with links to the Holocaust.

"The fact that dealers once knew and dealt with each other is not sufficient basis for assuming that they shared political ideas or participated in looting," her report said.

"It is impossible to understand why the Wiesenthal Center did not reveal its documentation immediately," it said. "The decision to challenge the Irish authorities in a sort of blackmail game was unprofessional in the extreme."

Samuels rejected the charge of blackmail, calling it "almost defamatory." He also complained that his organization had been completely excluded from the investigation process, and cast doubt on Nicholas' conclusions.

"This does not to me give a clean bill of health to the Hunt Museum," Samuels said of the report after reading The AP's story. "I do not feel the research has been exhaustive or complete, basically due to the fact that we were denied access to the archive and to the entire process."

The findings came too late for the Hunts' son and major museum booster, John Jr., who struggled to clear his parents' name but died less than a year after the allegations, aged 47.

"This is one of the most tragic elements to this story," said the museum director, Virginia Teehan. She said the Wiesenthal Center's allegations "caused great pain to John. ... It's very regrettable that he didn't live to see this report today."

Teehan led an effort in 2005 to display all of the museum's pieces on a Web site and has invited viewers to report any suspicions that they could have been stolen from Jewish families during the war.

She said the site has had more than a quarter-million visitors and there's been no query about any item contained in the collection.

Teehan said the Wiesenthal Center should apologize. "They have insulted the memory of John and Gertrude Hunt very deeply. One would expect they would be honorable in this regard, she said."

Samuels said he would not be issuing an apology and that, as far as he was concerned, "the show is not over."

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