VIENNA, Austria -- Sixty years after the Nazis plundered Jewish art collections, Austria appears willing to return hundreds of valuable art works gracing its museums to their rightful owners.
The change of heart follows the spectacular seizure in January by a Manhattan court of two Austrian paintings on display in New York City and a damning Vienna newspaper series on art looted by Nazis and never handed back to Jews.
Archivists, museum directors and the media are airing a subject that remained taboo in the tradition of drawing a veil over the Nazi years -- when Austria was both perpetrator and victim of its native son, Adolf Hitler.
Austria effectively confiscated hundreds of paintings from Jewish owners and their heirs after the war, using a 1923 law preventing the export of artworks. Jews were able to take out only a handful of the paintings seized by Nazis.
Herbert Haupt, an archivist at Vienna's Art History Museum, talked of "a veritable race for looted art" among Austrian museums after the war.
Austria made a half-hearted attempt in 1969 to find former owners, sending a list of 8,423 artworks to all its embassies abroad. The announcement went largely unnoticed.
Last month, Culture Minister Elisabeth Gehrer gave the first government promise to shed light on works the state kept back after 1945. She decreed that museums must clarify "beyond any doubt" the origin of their works.
Her initiative followed an eight-part series in the Der Standard newspaper, in which journalist Hubertus Czernin noted that Austria's Jews had been twice robbed -- first by the Nazis, then by postwar Austria.
Czernin's series prompted museum directors to confirm for the first time that they had hundreds of confiscated works.
No one knows exactly how many paintings are at stake, or their worth. Art experts have estimated that their value dwarfs the $14.5 million raised at a 1996 Vienna auction of confiscated art stored for decades at a monastery.
Dozens of canvases in private Jewish collections before 1945 now hang in Vienna's two premier art museums -- the Art History Museum, and the Austrian Gallery.
One of at least three paintings at the Austrian Gallery that were almost certainly confiscated from the Rothschild family is Edgar Degas' "Harlequin and Colombine." The two others are paintings by Austrian 19th-century portraitist Friedrich Amerling.
The Rothschilds, among Europe's biggest art collectors before World War II, bought their way out of Austria after Nazi annexation on March 12, 1938. Rothschild heirs never got the full art collection back.
The Nazis arrested Jews, Gypsies and others deemed undesirable en masse and seized their property.
Historian Theodor Brueckler, at the state Monument Bureau that holds most records on art in state museums, said Hitler's secret police, the Gestapo, often carted away all of Jewish families' furniture and artworks.
"The furniture was dumped on some street trader," said Brueckler, who is publishing a book on the confiscations. "The art was shipped to the Dorotheum (Vienna's main auction house) and readied for auction. Those who benefited were politically impeccable" -- trusted Nazis -- "and had the small change."
At the Dorotheum, no inventory was made, making it impossible to trace thousands of works changing hands during and after the war, Brueckler said.
The search for Jewish-owned paintings will take months -- some say years.
The first meeting of museum experts to clarify the origin of their artworks is scheduled for Friday.
The directors of the Austrian Gallery, Gerbert Frodl, and the Art History Museum, Wilfried Seipel, have promised to help trace all Jewish art in their collections and hand back former Nazi loot -- if the government agrees.
But Konrad Oberhuber at the Albertina collection of graphic art, seems more hesitant, telling The Associated Press he has "relatively few things" of questionable origin.
Discussing the confiscations on Austrian state television, Seipel proposed that needy Holocaust survivors reap proceeds from artworks in cases where owners or their heirs cannot be traced.
Frodle admitted no questions were asked if a painting bore the word "donation."
"We didn't think much about it," he said. "We knew a lot, but it wasn't really conscious knowledge."
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