JERUSALEM – Israel's national museum opened two new exhibits Monday of paintings with a tragic history: They were stolen from museums and salons by the Nazis and never reclaimed because many of the rightful owners perished during World War II.
The exhibits, which include paintings by masters like Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Georges Seurat, are meant to bring to life the dramatic stories behind the art — and perhaps reunite the works with the owners or heirs. Visitors who recognize a painting as their own and can prove it can file a claim.
"Our feeling about them is that our job is to hold them in custody, in a way, as a kind of memorial to their loss, and when the opportunity arises to return a work we are happy to do so," said James Snyder, the Israel Museum's director.
Worldwide, experts say, anywhere between 250,000 and 600,000 pieces of art looted by the Nazis were never claimed and remain in the possession of museums, governments and private collectors.
Last year, an Israeli group in charge of returning the property of Holocaust survivors accused the Israel Museum of not being forthcoming enough about the looted art in its possession, and not doing enough to return the art to its owners.
The museum rejected the criticism, saying that as a national institution of the Jewish state, it was a fitting place for the art. Since then, the institution has launched an Internet database of all of the looted art in its storerooms.
Over the years, the museum has returned about 20 pieces to owners or heirs, Snyder said.
The new exhibits contain about 80 pieces. The first exhibit, "Looking for Owners," is made up of 53 paintings on loan from French museums. Put together by a team of Israeli and French curators, it includes several works bought by prominent Nazis like Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's top diplomat.
Most paintings in that exhibit have been painstakingly researched, meaning that there is little chance that they will be claimed 60 years after the war's end, Snyder said.
The companion exhibit, "Orphaned Art," includes mostly lesser-known paintings and items of Judaica. It is a small sampling of some 1,200 pieces given to the Israel Museum decades ago by a group known as the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which was entrusted by the Allies with returning unclaimed Jewish property in postwar Europe.
The most famous painting in the "Orphaned Art" exhibit is one by the early 20th century Austrian master Egon Schiele thought to be worth more than $20 million.
In the "Looking for Owners" exhibit, nearly every painting has a story. Some were seized by the Nazis for inclusion in a museum of European art that Hitler planned to build in Linz, Austria.
Several pieces on display were returned to their owners, like "La Buveuse," a 1658 painting by Dutch master Pieter de Hooch that hung in the salon of financier Edouard de Rothschild in Paris before the war.
"This painting was coveted by Hitler. He knew about it, he wanted it, and he made every effort to get it," said Shlomit Steinberg, one of the exhibit's curators.
Reclaimed after the war and returned to the Rothschilds, "Le Buveuse" was later donated to the Louvre by Edouard's daughter.
Also on display are photographs taken after the war showing warehouses with thousands of crates of looted paintings, shelves of sculptures, and dozens of Torah scrolls stacked like logs. The exhibits include computer terminals connected to databases of looted art so visitors can research the pieces on view.