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French museums’ head denies charges about Jewish-owned art

PARIS, Feb. 3 (JTA) — The head of France’s state-run museums is objecting to accusations that institutions such as the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and Pompidou Center deliberately avoided tracing the rightful owners of nearly 2,000 works of art looted from Jews during World War II. Reacting to what has become one of the latest controversies surrounding Europe’s wartime history, Francoise Cachin, director of the Musees de France, said the museums had been treated unjustly. “We have been wronged because these works of art were always traceable,” Cachin said. “We may not have published a special catalog of them, but they have been included in inventories since the 1950s.” The 1,995 paintings, drawings and sculptures seized or purchased by the Nazis during the occupation of France were returned after the war and provisionally entrusted to French museums, which were required by law to seek out the owners of the works or their heirs. Cachin said most of the paintings — 1,878 are at the Louvre — were never claimed “because they were not stolen during the occupation but sold,” mostly by art dealers to German officers. The works include sculptures by Rodin and paintings by Picasso, Monet, Cezanne and Renoir. Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress, said most of the works were bought by shady art dealers for far below their value from Jews in urgent need of money because their lives were in danger. Lawyer Arno Klarsfeld, son of Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, said the museums’ intention “was to keep what they had, to accumulate more and above all not to give anything back.” “It’s the reflex of a thief. If something he steals is taken, he feels he’s been robbed,” Arno Klarsfeld added. Hector Feliciano, a Puerto Rican journalist who first revealed the existence of Jewish-owned art in state museums, said in an interview, “There was a complete void in terms of intention or desire to locate the owners.” The museums “don’t want to give them up,” he added. He said his request to see inventories of the works or to speak with curators was rejected. “They told me the inventory was still being completed. I was astonished. Still being completed after 50 years?” he said, adding that a promise made by Cachin to list the complete inventory on the Internet by the end of 1996 had not been fulfilled. The accusations by France’s public spending watchdog, the Cour des Comptes, were made in a confidential report disclosed last week by the daily newspaper Le Monde, just two days after Prime Minister Alain Juppe announced he would appoint a commission to investigate wartime seizures of Jewish property. In a related incident, a Jewish magistrate who had been asked to lead the investigative commission on looted Jewish property has turned down the job. Pierre Drai, 70, a retired president of France’s Supreme Court, has not given any reasons for his refusal. Meanwhile, a document from the U.S. National Archives obtained by the European Jewish Congress shows that Field Marshal Hermann Goering, who looted art treasures for the Third Reich as well as his own private collection, used French detectives and criminals to find hidden artwork belonging to French Jews. “I have been able to obtain especially valuable cultural goods from Jewish owners. I obtained them from hiding places that were very difficult to find,” Goering, a member of Hitler’s inner circle, said in the letter. “I discovered these a long time ago, by means of bribery and the employment of French detectives and criminal agents.”