Four hundred paintings taken by the Nazis, discovered by US troops and turned over to Israel are at the center of a dispute between Israel's national museum and a group entrusted with finding the lost property of Holocaust victims.
The artwork, currently in the storerooms and galleries of the Israel Museum, includes paintings by Egon Shiele, the early 20th century figurative painter, and the French impressionist Alfred Sisley. Found by American soldiers in Nazi art caches after WWII, they were eventually given to the museum.
No survivors or heirs of victims have ever claimed them.
But last year, Israel's parliament passed a law requiring anyone in Israel holding property that belonged to Holocaust victims to turn it over to a new organization known as the Company for Retrieving Assets of Holocaust Victims.
The company, controlled by Holocaust survivor's groups and other Jewish organizations, is required to look for heirs. If none are found, it must sell the property and distribute the money to needy survivors.
During a recent parliamentary discussion of an upcoming exhibit of French paintings at the museum, the company discovered that the institution was holding 400 paintings that belonged to European Jews killed by the Nazis. It demanded they be turned over.
"It's not left to the museum's judgment. It has to return the artwork according to the law," Nadav Haetzni, the company's legal adviser, told The Associated Press.
The museum declined, saying it is holding the artwork as a national institution of the Jewish state.
"The State of Israel gave the artwork to the museum to take care of, so that it would remain for the coming generations," a statement from the museum said. "If someone comes and says, this belonged to my grandmother or grandfather, of course we will return it to them according to law."
Whenever the pieces of art are exhibited, the museum said, a label always notes that they belonged to Holocaust victims and were entrusted to the museum for safekeeping. Most of the paintings are not major works, however, and are not on display.
Haetzni criticized the museum's insistence on keeping the artwork, saying its actions would be noted by other museums and governments still holding on to the property of Holocaust survivors.
"In moral terms, it's an international precedent," he said.
This is not the first time the Israel Museum has been asked to turn over art that once belonged to Holocaust victims.
In 2000, the museum struck an agreement with the descendants of the owner of Camille Pissarro's "Boulevard Montmartre: Spring," which had been taken by the Nazis and later purchased and donated to the museum. Ownership returned to the heirs of the original owner, Max Silberberg, but the painting remained on display, along with an explanation of its history.