During World War II, Nazis plundered tens of thousands of works of art from the private collections of European Jews. Many of those Jews lived in France. About 75 percent of the art that came back to France after the war has been returned to the rightful owners. But approximately 2,000 pieces remain unclaimed. Eleanor Beardsley reports that the French government has begun one of its most extensive efforts ever to find the heirs to that art.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Millions of visitors a year stroll through French art museums like the Louvre. French law states that art pillaged during World War II must be publicly exhibited, if its condition permits, so that it can be recognized and claimed. Thierry Bajou is coordinating the French government's latest efforts to speed up that process.

THIERRY BAJOU: (Through translator) Up until now, France put out the maximum information for public consumption and waited for reaction, for people to come forward. Now, we're proactively tracking down the descendants and families of those who had their art stolen.

BEARDSLEY: Historians, regulators, archivists and curators are working full time. They're also searching for looted art that may be on the open market. For the first time in France, the buyers and sellers at art auctions that took place between 1938 and 1950 have been revealed. Bajou says it's always complicated when a piece of art is found and the current owner, five or six times removed from and unaware of the original theft, believes he legally owns the piece.

BAJOU: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Bajou brings up the culture ministry's website for looted art. The Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris was the clearinghouse for all the art the Nazis collected around Europe and sent to Germany. A photo taken by the Germans in 1942 shows a room crammed with paintings. Using a special software technology, the full frontal perspective of the painting can be reproduced even if only a side sliver of the work is visible in the photo.

BAJOU: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: You see, now, you can even read the signature on this one, says Bajou. It's signed Picasso. Bajou says it was easier for the bigger collectors to get back their artworks after the war because they were usually well documented.

BAJOU: (Through Translator) What's complicated is if you were just a normal guy and had maybe one piece of art that was in your family. It's difficult to link the work to the person because most times during the war, the families lost all their records, any photos or insurance claims, any proof that the art was theirs.

TOM SELDORFF: Thank you very much.


BEARDSLEY: The new efforts have already produced results. In a ceremony at the French Culture Ministry in March, six paintings were returned to 82-year-old Bostonian Tom Seldorff. Seldorff was 6 years old when he saw his grandfather's prized art collection for the last time in 1930s Vienna.

SELDORFF: I only wish my grandfather were here to be able to be part of all this, but I'm sure he's watching from somewhere upstairs. So that's fine. Thank you very much.

BEARDSLEY: Seldorff's grandfather, Jewish industrialist Richard Neumann, fled to France in 1938 after the Anschluss, but he was soon forced to flee again, selling off his collection for a song. He made it to Cuba alive but penniless. Records show his paintings were destined for a German Louvre Hitler planned in the Austrian town of Linz. I visit French Senator Corinne Bouchoux, a major force behind the new initiative. She says France has not done enough in the past decades to return the paintings and calls it the country's moral duty.

SENATOR CORINNE BOUCHOUX: (Through translator) This problem was sort of left in the freezer of history after 1950, and it was the conjunction of two events that revived it: the fall of the Berlin Wall, which gave us access to the Soviet archives, and the Internet. Before the Internet, if you lived in Brazil and your family had missing works, you couldn't search the French collections of stolen art. Now, you can.

BEARDSLEY: But even with Internet, it's still difficult, says Bajou.

BAJOU: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Looking at the culture ministry's website, he points to three paintings by artist Fedor Lowenstein. They were considered degenerate art, and Nazi records showed they had been destroyed. So no one ever looked for them, says Bajou. But they were recently discovered in the negatives of the photos the Nazis took. As it turns out, the Lowensteins were in storage at the Pompidou Center classified as an anonymous donation by a careless curator in 1973. Bajou says that should never have happened, and now, the French government is trying to return the paintings.

BAJOU: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Lowenstein had no children, says Bajou, but he may have had a sibling who may have had a child. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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