Art looted by Nazis may be in Louvre

A SECRETLY compiled US government report listing more than 2,000 people who handled art looted by the Nazis will become a weapon in tracing works stolen from Holocaust victims, a Jewish leader has claimed.

The 1946 report "is a starting point for the investigation of looted wartime art in all the galleries and museum collections in the world," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which released the 170-page list on Tuesday.

The organisation is leading a new international effort to find the Picassos, Matisses, Renoirs and other plundered works. The works are in private and public collections and could be in museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"In most cases, they have been unknowingly placed there," Steinberg said.

The secret list of dealers and collectors was compiled by the art looting unit of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the US Central Intelligence Agency. Agents were sent to Europe after the war to track an estimated 200,000 looted artworks.

At least three-quarters of the works came from Jewish families, and about half were never returned, Steinberg said. A few of the dealers and collectors were themselves Jewish, according to the report.

The document, from the National Archives in Washington, names individuals who bought or sold art during the Second World War in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Luxembourg.

France, led by the pro-Hitler Vichy regime, was a prime target of the Nazi art collectors; the Wehrmacht arrived with lists of paintings and looted at least 100,000 works of art there.

The OSS document won't necessarily prove a work of art was plundered, Steinberg said, "but it's a warning flag. It's a sign we need to inquire further."

The Nazis made off with art then valued at about $2.5 billion - about equal to all the art owned in the United States at the time, Steinberg said.

Museums, curators and Jewish organisations worldwide will now use the list to track the provenance of thousands of works and try to return them to their prewar owners, Steinberg said. (AP)