After decades in legal limbo, France's collection of Nazi-looted art may finally be sent to Israel

They are all important pictures in their own right, hanging in the Louvre, the Musée D'Orsay, and leading regional galleries in France, but an assemblage of 14 paintings, including works by Monet, Renoir, and Sisley, have taken on a diplomatic, symbolic and historical value that far transcends the tens of millions of pounds they would fetch on the international market.

The Old Masters and Impressionists are some of the glittering prizes among a 2,000-strong collection of artworks in French galleries that were most probably looted from Jewish homes and galleries in occupied France by the Nazis during the Second World War. Now, in an act of collective restitution, they could finally be headed for galleries in Israel.

A long-term art loan from France to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem was recommended four years ago by a commission appointed in 1997 by the then French prime minister, Alain Juppé, in the wake of a furore among French Jewry triggered by a leaked report on the long-forgotten collection. Sporadic negotiations between French and Israeli officials have, however, foundered on a central problem: what would happen if the previous owner of one of the exhibited works, or the owner's family, identified it as their own property?

Under French law, any such claim would have to be made through French courts. Under Israeli law, an Israeli citizen who identified his property in France would have every right to make a claim in the Israeli courts.

What may now break the deadlock is a decision by the relevant Israeli ministries to discuss a draft bill for approval by the Knesset that would waive the right to make claims in the Israeli, rather than French, courts in cases of this specific kind.

If such legislation is approved by the Knesset it could go some way to help close a circle half a century after four years of systematic Nazi theft of up to 100,000 paintings, furnishings and objets d'art owned by French Jews.

In the days which followed the occupation in 1940, the Reich embassy in Paris began to organise the random pillaging of Jewish homes and galleries. By the autumn the seizure operation, authorised in a decree signed by Hitler, was put in the hands of the Special Staff for Pictorial Art and of Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, (ERR) which set up their Paris headquarters in the Jeu de Paume, the principal French gallery for Impressionist paintings.

That was quickly turned into a clearing house for the transportation of art treasures back to Germany. Hermann Goering was a frequent and enthusiastic visitor to the Jeu de Paume and appropriated hundreds of artworks formerly owned by Jews for his own walls.

Typewritten inventories, recovered by the Allies after the fall of Berlin, meticulously list the paintings which had been chosen for Hitler himself - among them works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Watteau and Boucher - as well as many that Reichsmarshal Goering had selected for his own enjoyment, including eight Renoirs, several Van Goghs, about a dozen Corots, and others by Degas, Breughel and Cranach. Hundreds more were destined for the Grand Reich Museum, which Hitler planned at Linz.

A 1944 report by Robert Scholz of the ERR staff conveys the zeal with which the Nazis authorities made the seizures. The report boasted that treasures had been ransacked first from the "Paris city palaces" and the "famous Loire castles" of the "internationally known Jewish Rothschild family", as well as from "clever hiding places" in warehouses in coastal cities such as Bordeaux, where they had been packed for transportation to the US.

"In this same manner," the Scholz report continued, "the artworks of other French Jews, famous for their art collections, such as Kann, David-Weill, Levy de Benzion and Seligmann, were traced and seized."

Despite "proven sabotage by French authorities, as well as through the camouflaging of Jewish possessions under the trusteeship of French gentiles covering for the Jews" the report was able to claim that "the most important part of the art possessions which had been in the hands of Jews in France, insofar as these had not already been removed before the occupation, was safeguarded" for the Reich.

With twisted logic it added: "The highest artistic productions of all European nations [were] secured for Europe." The report went on to drool at the quality - of the works which had been sent back to six bombproof shelters in Germany between March, 1941 and July, 1944 "in 29 large shipments including 137 freight cars with 4,174 cases of artworks".

At the end of the war the Art Recovery Commission, created in November, 1944, three months after the liberation of Paris, hunted down 61,233 of the 100,000 missing works. The other 39,000 were lost through the ravages of war and the refusal of the Soviet Union to co-operate with the allies' restitution policy.

Of the recovered works, some 45,441 were returned to their rightful, pre-war owners. About 2,000 were assigned in 1949 to French national museums in what was known as the Recovery collections.

But the remaining 13,500, a delicate understatement in the 2000 report of the Juppé-appointed commission under Jean Matteoli notes, were then sold "with surprising haste" by the public art authorities at a gain to the French exchequer of F100m at 1954 prices.

Although the French authorities periodically advertised the unclaimed works - and between 1950 and 1954 exhibited them at Compiègne - they performed no active research on their provenance until 1996. In the six years up to 2000, only 30 of the paintings were returned to the heirs of the original owners, 20 of them in 1999.

The wartime history of most remained clouded in doubt and suspicion. The Matteoli Commission broke them down as 163 definitely plundered, 163 legitimately acquired or commissioned, and 1,817 "lacking a complete history for the period in question".

It said 1,263 of the works were "purchased" but many may have been bought from those who had plundered them, or under duress from their legitimate owner at much less than market value.

A secret report after the war by the art looting investigation unit of the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA) identified some 2,000 European people and organisations enriched by helping with the plunder. They included the Schenker transport company, which ferried most of the treasures from France to Germany; Georges Wildenstein, a Paris Jewish dealer who fled to the US and ran his business from New York with the help of his right-hand man, Roger Dequoy; some Paris dealers, such as Fabiani and Petrides, an Uttrillo specialist who enriched themselves by their dealings with the Nazi ERR, and Karl Haberstock, the main Nazi dealer involved in the trafficking.

Many Jewish art galleries were seized by the Germans or the Vichy authorities and given to "Aryans".

It is against this sombre background that the French government is now making what its embassy in Tel Aviv describes as "political gesture of friendship" by offering, in the first instance, 14 paintings. They have been identified by the Art Newspaper as: Hippolyte Belange, Scene galante; Peter Binoit, Still-life with dish, fruit and glasses; Henri Fantin-Latour, Flowers and fruit; Pierre Gobert, Woman in costume holding a mask; Stanislas Lépine, Riverbanks; Claude Monet, Field with poppies; Claude Monet, Still-life with pheasant; Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Still-life with apples; Philippe Rousseau, Still-life with oysters and a glass of wine; Alfred Sisley, The avenue of poplars in the outskirts of Moret-sur-Loing; Alfred Sisley, The road to Petits-Près à By: stormy weather; Floris van Schooten, Still-life with ham; Vandelen, Interior of a palace; and Matthias Withoos, Still-life.

Pierre Filatoff, the embassy spokesman, said the offer of a loan was "special" and its symbolic value was more important than a matter of which and how many paintings would eventually be on offer, although he did not rule out extending the loan.

Daniel Shek, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry's European division, said that the loan, if it could be negotiated, was important "not only because of the artistic value of what is on offer, but because it is a recognition that Israel is the heir to the Jews who were victims of the Shoah".

The theft of art is only, in the end, a very small part of the story of the German occupation. Some 76,000 Jews, about a quarter of those in France at the time, were deported to Nazi death camps, where all but 2,500 died. But the gesture of the loan of the art is seen in Israel as important, not only because of the artistic and symbolic value, but also because it may just ease a little of the friction that has characterised Franco-Israeli relations in recent years.

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