SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now a story about a controversy born out of the Holocaust that lingers more than six decades later. The Nazis seized up to 600,000 works of art. Much of it still hasn't been returned to the rightful heirs. Some of it has ended up in Israel. Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem that some advocates for Holocaust victims say that more needs to be done to get the art back to the families that owned it.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: If you saw "The Monuments Men," the George Clooney movie, you know the story. Toward the end of World War II, American and allied forces sent teams on a treasure hunt through Europe to look for art stolen by the Nazis and to return it to its owners. But many of those owners had been killed in the Holocaust and a lot of art was never claimed, so a couple thousand artworks were distributed to Jewish institutions around the world. A lot of them were sent to Israel.
JAMES SNYDER: We're standing in front of a work by Egon Schiele from 1915.
ESTRIN: James Snyder directs the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He says this oil painting - a sort of mosaic of rooftops - is one of about a thousand looted works the museum received.
SNYDER: The fact that no one has ever surfaced with a record of its prior ownership sadly suggests that no one from the family that may have owned it before the war survived the war.
ESTRIN: So nothing written on the back of the painting?
SNYDER: Nothing to identify it in any way.
ESTRIN: Today, many museums around the world are scouring their collections for Nazi-confiscated art. Snyder says the Israel Museum has returned about 40 works to heirs. But art experts say it's likely that Israeli museums have more looted paintings hanging on their walls and they don't even know it - works that museums bought in good faith or got as gifts. Stuart Eizenstat, special advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry on Holocaust issues, addressed a conference on art restitution in Israel this summer. He said Israel has been slow to act.
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STUART EIZENSTAT: It's ironic because Israel is the state of the Jewish people. It's ironic because Israel has the greatest number of Holocaust survivors in the world. It's ironic because Israel should be a leader as a Jewish state on Holocaust-related issues.
ESTRIN: The Israeli organization Hashava that the government formed to locate Holocaust victims' assets in Israel - it only started looking into art in 2013. Elinor Kroitoru works at the organization.
ELINOR KROITORU: I believe Israel always had the sense that being the state of the Jewish people, things should belong here if they are heirless.
ESTRIN: Her organization has caused a bit of a stink on this issue. It's publicly accused Israeli museums of not doing enough detective work to weed out suspect art. Kroitoru has singled out on major museum - The Tel Aviv Museum of Art. She says it has a big collection of impressionist and postimpressionist art, the kind European Jewish collectors owned before the war. She thinks statistically it's likely the museum has looted art on its walls without even realizing it.
KROITORU: The Tel Aviv Museum claims that they have done research internally, but nothing has been published yet. We are waiting for the museum to come forward and show us and show the public what they have done. And I hope that they'll publish and work transparently.
ESTRIN: Ruth Feldman is a recently retired curator from the Museum. She says the Museum takes this issue very seriously.
RUTH FELDMAN: We did a lot of work in that field. We did. There's not always the time to do it and the manpower to do it. But things are done at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
ESTRIN: Kroitoru says Israeli museums are moving forward. This summer, curators attended the first workshop in Israel on how to do this provenance research. And the Hashava organization is working with a Tel Aviv Museum to get funding for the research. But even when the rightful family is found, that's not always the end of the story. In some cases, Kroitoru says, heirs turn around and sell their art to private collectors.
KROITORU: And then it's - we are in a very unusual situation where art that was looted from a Jew in Europe before the war ends up in the beautiful palace of a very rich person in Dubai. And one of the questions is that really what we want to happen to looted art?
ESTRIN: Here's one arrangement. When the Israel Museum in Jerusalem has returned art to heirs, some heirs have just kept their art hanging at the Museum on loan or by selling it back. That way, they don't need to fuss with security cameras and climate-controlled storage for their precious painting and the public of Israel gets to appreciate a great work of art and a piece of Holocaust history. For NPR News I'm Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.
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