Looted Holocaust-era art pits Israeli institutions against each other

The stakes are high: Collection includes important paintings thought to be worth more than $20 million.

Two Israeli institutions are battling for custody of an unclaimed collection of artwork plundered by the Nazis - a dispute over who best represents the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants. The Israel Museum, repository of such national treasures as the Dead Sea Scrolls, has control of the collection and is fighting to keep it. It is up against a company headed by a Holocaust survivor that is legally entrusted with locating the property of victims. Such disputes have become familiar around the world in the 62 years since the Holocaust ended. Now, as Israel marks its annual remembrance day from Sunday to Monday for the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, the fight is being waged on its own soil. The stakes are high: Although the museum says most of the roughly 1,200 paintings and items of Judaica have little monetary value, they include important paintings such as one by the early 20th century Austrian master Egon Schiele thought to be worth more than US$20 million (€15 million). None of the museum's pieces has ever been claimed by survivors or heirs, the museum said. But a law passed last year requires Holocaust victims' property to be turned over to the restitution company, known as The Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People Who Were Killed in the Holocaust. The Israel Museum contends that as a national institution of the Jewish state it is the most fitting home for the Holocaust art. The museum was chosen "to be a custodian of this cultural legacy for the benefit of the public in the State of Israel," museum director James Snyder said. "We have taken that charge seriously and we hope and feel that we have conducted ourselves honorably and responsibly with respect to it," Snyder told The Associated Press. But Avraham Roet, 78, the Holocaust survivor who heads the restitution group, said the museum has no special status. "The Jewish people is demanding the return of looted property around the world, and there is no reason that the Jewish people should behave differently with itself and with its own institutions," Roet told AP. Controlled by Holocaust survivors' groups and other Jewish organizations, Roet's company is required by law to look for heirs to the recovered property, and if none are found, sell the property and distribute the money to needy survivors. The Dutch-born Roet, who survived the Nazi occupation of Holland as a child hidden by Christian families, says the law requires the museum to turn over any artwork that might have belonged to Holocaust victims - including everything it received from the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, which took control of much unclaimed Jewish property in postwar Europe. Only a few of the disputed pieces are exhibited in the museum, all tagged as having come from JRSO. The rest are held in storerooms - and many never displayed. Lucille Roussin, an expert on looted art at New York University, says the museum could have done more to find heirs. "The pieces have been in the basement for however many years - how can anybody claim it? You have an obligation to put it out there," she said. The museum argues that much of the artwork belonged to Jewish museums and synagogues in Europe and that the rest is untraceable, meaning it didn't necessarily belong to individual victims. "If there's no record, there's just no way to know," Snyder said. The museum has returned some 20 pieces claimed by heirs, including 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. But Roet says everything must be turned over, and that when the company gains control, "we'll have an exhibit in a big hall and maybe someone will recognize something that used to belong to them or their family." Michael Bazyler, an expert on Holocaust restitution at Whittier Law School in California, said that "overall, the Israel Museum has been good," but should make the artwork accessible to victims and heirs on the Internet. The museum says it is already compiling an online catalog. Worldwide, experts say, anywhere between 250,000 and 600,000 pieces of art looted by the Nazis are still with museums, governments and private collectors. Looted art, says Bazyler, remains "the unfinished business of World War II."