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Heir of Jewish collector hopes to recover Nazi-looted treasures

April 10, 1997

PARIS (AP) _ As a young boy in pre-World War II Paris, Francis Warin didn’t know a lot about art. But he knew his great-uncle had many beautiful things in his country mansion.

When war came, occupying Nazis made off with at least 1,200 pieces from the collection, which was rich in Cezannes, Matisses and Picassos.

France returned hundreds of the works soon after the war, but a despairing Warin heard nothing of the rest for decades. Until now.

Last week, the French Foreign Ministry announced it had determined the rightful owners of three paintings, and would soon return them. It didn’t identify the owners publicly. Warin had already filed a claim for two of the paintings, a Picasso portrait and a Cubist landscape that a researcher had earlier traced to his family.

The works had been hanging in French national museums for decades.

On Wednesday, seeking to counter criticism that it hasn’t done enough to find owners or heirs of almost 2,000 other works, France opened special displays of about 900 of them in the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Center, at Versailles and elsewhere.

The exhibits, billed as an effort to let owners reclaim their works, are also a clear attempt to take the offensive in a scandal that has greatly embarrassed the French government.

``We never hid anything,″ insisted Francoise Cachin, director of the national museum authority. ``At the worst, one can accuse us of some negligence, some forgetfulness. But not of bad faith.″

Warin disagrees.

``They had the means to find out who the owners were. They didn’t do it,″ said Warin, a 67-year-old television film producer. ``There was a complicity here with the (Nazi) stealing.″

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for France, which has seen neighboring Switzerland suffer international censure over its handling of Jewish wartime assets. France has been eager to show it has overcome a longtime reluctance to confront its wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany.

Last fall, the city of Paris suspended the sale of city-owned apartments following allegations that some had been taken from Jewish families by the pro-Nazi Vichy government.

And Prime Minister Alain Juppe recently set up a panel to investigate seized wartime Jewish property. Many of the collectors who lost art works were Jewish, like Warin’s great-uncle, Alphonse Kann.

Kann escaped with his life by spending the war years in England, where he died in 1948. But many of the art owners were presumably among the 75,000 French Jews deported to Nazi camps. Only 2,500 of those deported survived the war.

For many, the government’s gestures come too late to satisfy.

``Why did you wait 50 years?″ one man demanded at a ceremony Tuesday for the opening of the Pompidou Center exhibit.

One reason it’s happening now is Paris-based American author Hector Feliciano, whose ``The Lost Museum″ has generated wide publicity in France. The book, soon to be released in English, details Feliciano’s work tracing the ownership of many looted works sitting in French museums _ and asks why the government never did.

Feliciano told The Associated Press that a French commission did admirable work in returning 45,000 objects to their rightful owners after the war. But virtually nothing has been done since, he said.

He also contends that some of the works wound up in the United States, through dealers, curators and auction houses who never explored their origins.

Cachin, the national museum director, says the vast majority of works still in the museums were sold to the Nazis through middlemen or the collectors themselves, but acknowledges some were looted.

She also argues that a list of unclaimed works has been posted on the Internet since November, but says it has yet to produce a match between an owner and a painting.

After Feliciano’s revelations appeared in French newspapers last year, Warin contacted him for help in locating the Picasso, ``Head of a Woman″ and the landscape by Albert Gleizes.

Warin then filed a claim with the government, which last week announced the paintings would be returned sometime soon.

``I’ll be satisfied when I have them in my hands,″ Warin said.

Wednesday, they were hanging in the Pompidou Center.

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