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Russia looks at artwork stolen from Jews

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LONDON, Oct. 27 (JTA) — Gerta Silberberg has come one step closer to regaining artworks that the Nazis looted from her family.

The 85-year-old British widow lives modestly in northern England, but is the sole heir to an art fortune that remains scattered around the world.

She welcomed word that Russia has agreed to take steps that may lead to the return of at least one painting that belongs to her — a Cezanne currently housed in Russia’s Hermitage Museum — and perhaps the return of several more.

Just the same, she acknowledges that any dealings with the Russian authorities “can be a long and complicated business.”

“We will have to see what happens next,” she said. “For a long time, the Russians were very unhelpful. We will now have to see how nice they are prepared to be.”

A team of lawyers and art historians have identified other paintings from the Silberberg collection in Israel, Britain, Germany and the United States.

Russian officials earlier this month told the chairman of the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust, Lord Janner, that they are prepared to begin making an inventory of artworks looted during World War II.

This is a crucial first step toward restoring the works to their legitimate owners.

The Red Army looted an estimated 130,000 artworks in Germany at the end of the war and shipped them back to Moscow in 1946.

Many of the artworks were returned to East Germany in 1958, but Moscow has always resisted demands to return others, which it regarded as “reparations.”

As recently as July the constitutional court upheld a decision by the Russian Parliament to block the return of any artworks that once belonged to the German government.

The inventory they are now willing to undertake has only to do with works the Nazis looted from individuals.

However, many of the paintings removed by the Russians were not the property of the German government but had, in fact, been stolen by the Nazis from Jewish collections.

According to investigators, hundreds of these works may still be in the vaults of Russia’s great museums — the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin in Moscow. Several Silberberg pieces, apart from the Cezanne, might be among items that have been in storage for more than 50 years.

The Russians are also now known to have dozens of SS documents that detail the real owners of paintings removed from Berlin at the end of the war.

Moscow’s change of heart follows intense lobbying by Jewish groups, particularly the Holocaust Educational Trust, which brokered the deal.

Janner said he was delighted “that we have managed to secure this breakthrough.

“I think there can be no doubt that the Russians have valuable clues to the whereabouts of some of the paintings that have gone missing.”

It now remains to be seen whether the “long and complicated business” Silberberg mentioned will result in the artworks’ return to their rightful owners.

Silberberg and her husband, Alfred, arrived in Britain as destitute refugees from Nazi Germany in 1937.

Unable to leave was Alfred’s father, Max, who had been stripped of all his assets and forced to sell his entire 143-piece art collection — currently valued at some $35 million — for a pittance at a series of four “Jew Auctions” in 1935.

Max Silberberg later died in a concentration camp.

Ten years ago, the German government acknowledged that artworks sold at these “Jew Auctions” were looted property.

Last month, German art authorities delivered a Van Gogh sketch, which had been displayed at Berlin’s National Gallery and is valued at some $3 million, to Gerta, heir to the Silberberg fortune since Alfred died in 1984.

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