Israel's national museum has launched an Internet catalog of more than 1,000 pieces of art looted by the Nazis, easing a feud over their ownership.
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The release of the database followed a vocal spat between the Israel Museum and an Israeli group that accused the museum of not doing enough to return pieces that belonged to Holocaust survivors and their heirs. The group, formed by the government to locate the property of Holocaust victims, hailed the new database on Tuesday as a very positive sign.
The museum's digital catalog is designed to allow people to identify and reclaim property that was lost in the Holocaust and made its way to the museum. The pieces include drawings, Judaica items and paintings - several of them worth millions of dollars - that were plundered by German troops, recovered by the Allies in postwar Europe and later transferred to Israel.
The pieces have never been claimed, according to the museum, and the scant information available about their origins has made locating heirs nearly impossible.
Avraham Roet, the Dutch-born Holocaust survivor who heads the Israeli restitution group, officially known as The Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People Who Were Killed in the Holocaust, praised the museum's move
"We are so happy that the museum has adopted the principle of publishing its holdings," Roet said. "This is a very positive sign, and there is cooperation between us."
Earlier this year, Roet's organization criticized the museum for not publicizing the looted artwork in its possession and demanded it turn over the pieces so they could be restored to their rightful owners or sold for the benefit of needy survivors.
The museum refused, saying that as a national institution of the Jewish state it was a fitting home for the artwork.
The museum's new catalog appeared to defuse the argument. The restitution group has now backed away from its demand for the artwork and will instead likely reach a compromise with the museum, Roet said - possibly one that will see the pieces on display as a memorial to Jews killed in the Holocaust.
James Snyder, the museum's director, said work on the Web site began long before the restitution company pressed its demand.
"We've taken an active role in restitution, and we think it's important for us in Israel to behave in an exemplary way," Snyder said.
The museum has returned some 20 pieces claimed over the years, he said, the most famous of which was Camille Pissarro's Boulevard Montmartre: Spring in 2000. The original owners' heirs agreed to leave the painting on display at the museum, accompanied by an explanation of its history.
The museum should still put out a printed catalog for elderly survivors who might not know how to use the Internet, said Lucille Roussin, a legal expert on looted art at Yeshiva University in New York City. But she praised the new digital catalog as accessible and well designed.
"I think they've done a good job," Roussin said.
The artwork in question reached the museum through the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which took control of much unclaimed Jewish property in postwar Europe.
Most of the items have little monetary value and aren't on display. But several are important - like a painting by the early 20th century Austrian master Egon Schiele thought to be worth more than $20 million.
Worldwide, experts say, between 250,000 and 600,000 pieces of art looted by the Nazis are still held by museums, governments and private collectors. Only a tiny fraction have been returned to the original owners or their heirs.