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The federal government has a treasure hunt going on. The treasures are lost works of art created by artists who were employed by the government during the Great Depression. Hundreds of thousands of pieces were produced and they remain the property of the American people. The trick is finding them. Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRAIN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's 1932, the height of the Great Depression and presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt proposes a way out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.

NAYLOR: After his inauguration, FDR enacted a raft of new deal programs aimed at giving jobs to the millions unemployed. Programs for construction workers and farmers and for artists. Virginia Mecklenburg is chief curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

VIRGINIA MECKLENBURG: Paintings and sculpture were produced, murals were produced and literally thousands of prints.

NAYLOR: In all, hundreds of thousands of works were produced by as many as 10,000 artists. The biggest program was the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Artists could earn up to $42 a week, as long as they produced. To qualify for the work, you had to prove yourself as an artist and you had to show you were poor. Mecklenburg remembered speaking to two brothers-in-law who were in the program.

MECKLENBURG: And one of them was saying, you know, you had to prove you were penniless, he said it hurt your dignity. And the other one was so cavalier and devil-may-care about it. He said, oh, you know, if you thought the relief worker was coming to check out if you had an iron, or anything else that looked like it was of value, you just ran it over to the neighbor's apartment so it looked like you didn't have any possessions at all.

It's about as human a story as we've ever come up with in the art world.

NAYLOR: Some of the art became famous, such as the murals painted in post offices and other public buildings across the country, but in the 80 years since the New Deal art programs began, many of the works have disappeared. The General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of government buildings, is hunting the lost art. GSA Inspector General Brian Miller says every recovered painting has a story.

Take, for instance, the seascape Gulls at Monhegan, painted by Maine artist Andrew Winter.

BRIAN MILLER: It hung in the embassy in Costa Rica for years and the ambassador loved it so much that when he left, his staff gave it to him as kind of an unofficial gift. And so it's remained in his family and then his granddaughter eventually tried to sell it up in Portland, Maine.

NAYLOR: Another painting recovered by the GSA was the work of John Sloan. It's a New York City street scene called Fourteenth Street at Sixth Avenue. It had been hung in a U.S. senator's office and apparently went home with a staffer after the senator's death.

MILLER: It's a busy street and there's I guess an El that goes over top, bustling street with people walking and cars parked and people in all sorts of dress. And this really captures life in New York City.

NAYLOR: The painting, appraised at three-quarters of a million dollars, was recovered in 2003 and is now on loan to the Detroit Institute of Arts. Other pieces have been found at yard sales, antique malls and on eBay. Many are identifiable by tags that say Federal Arts Program or Treasury Department Art Project.

Miller, who is stepping down from his post at the GSA at the end of the week, says the government wants to preserve these scenes of America.

MILLER: There are just hundreds of portraits of what American life was like during the '30s and '40s and it really captures a piece of America and we want to put it up for America to see.

NAYLOR: Miller says the GSA would like to capture more of these pieces for America to see and it has recovered more than 200 works of art so far. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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