Visitors streaming past the new exhibit on the ground floor of Paris's Orsay museum aren't lingering to ponder each work. While some of the 130 paintings and drawings on display here are worth a longer look, many are not up to the quality of work usually hung on these walls, and others are outright fakes. But all are in need of a rightful owner.
This is the first in a series of exhibitions this month of artwork looted by the Nazis during World War II, returned to France, and "provisionally" absorbed into French national collections. Tomorrow, 857 other works of art will go on display in the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Center (the museum of modern art), and 120 regional French museums.
Critics say France hasn't tried hard enough in the last 50 years to find the legitimate owners, many of whom were Jewish collectors sent away to Nazi death camps or forced to quickly sell their property in a bid to avoid them. France's national museums want to show that the critics are wrong - and to avoid the international criticism Swiss banks face over delays in answering questions about benefits from Nazi plunder of Jewish victims.
"My decision to display these works this year in major national museums is in the interest of transparency. I want to show that the reality is more complex than rumors that say French museums have hidden 'treasures' stolen from Jewish families by the Nazis," said Culture Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy as he launched this exhibition April 2.
Of the 61,000 objects brought back from Germany in 1945, more than 45,000 were restored to their owners by 1949, says Mr. Douste-Blazy. Of 15,000 remaining works, "including empty frames and blank canvases," most were sold. Some 2,000 were kept in Paris or loaned out to regional French museums.
"Masterpieces are rare, even if they're not completely absent, and important works are permanently displayed and clearly marked MNR [Muses Nationaux Recuperation, or National Recovery Museums]," he adds.
Unlike some other countries, France never established a deadline for requesting restitution for stolen artworks, despite three legislative efforts to do so. In the former Soviet Union, for example, stolen Nazi art was viewed as a "trophy" of war.
Museum officials insist that France never completely absorbed recovered Nazi art into its collection and has always been open to claims for restitution. This month's exhibitions aim to set aside doubts on this point.
For example, the new labels on these lost works give as much information as is known about a painting's past ownership. douard Manet's "Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase" was purchased by Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1941 for 1 million French francs. Georges Seurat's "Ruins at Grandcamp" was owned by an anonymous German officer. Albert Hertel's "Still Life With a Turkey" was "perhaps bought from the antique dealer CFE Schmidt" and destined for Hitler's Linz museum. Many others are simply of origins "unknown."
But for French critics, the issue is not whether Nazi officers had a bill of sale, or even whether they paid a fair price. The booming art market in Paris during the Nazi occupation was created on the back of persecuted victims.
"The art market reflects a history of intensive pillage of works belonging to Jewish collectors whose rights were plundered and who remain the object of a dark history steeped in emotion," Paris historian Laurence Bertrand-Dorleac said at a November 1996 conference on art stolen during World War II.
"Has France really tried to find out the origins of these works? Why - nearly 50 years after the events - have the owners never been found?" asked journalist Hector Feliciano at the same conference. An English translation of Mr. Feliciano's 1995 book, "The Lost Museum," that expands these charges will be available in the United States next month.
"Nazi hunter" Serge Klarsfeld was an early advocate for stronger government action on this front; he is part of an eight-member working group appointed by the French government on Feb. 5 to take up the issue of plundered Jewish property. The committee meets for the first time this week.
"Unlike resistants and other prisoners, when Jews were deported, whole families were taken. It's very hard to find the real owners of looted Nazi art because the whole family was killed," Mr. Klarsfeld says. "What we want is recognition of the fact that most of the works of art kept by the museums came from Jewish families. If they sold the artwork, it was to live."
Klarsfeld also credits French President Jacques Chirac for being the first French head of state to admit the responsibility of the French government for complicity in the Nazi genocide. But he says that the government should now do more to support some 10,000 to 15,000 Jewish war orphans in France who have not been compensated for suffering the results of French deportations during the Nazi occupation.
For now, French authorities are eager to get the message out that they are receptive to new claims to return art to rightful owners. This month's new campaign will include the first catalog of all unclaimed works as well as an Internet site where images and information on works can be consulted (http://www.culture.fr - under a section called "Documentation - Catalogue des MNR").
But at the same time, museum spokesmen say that new demands for restitution are unlikely.
"These tools aim to pull together information that is now dispersed," says Franoise Cachin, director of the museums of France. "I don't think they will bring new elements to the attention of historians. I will simply be glad if they allow a single collector to recover a work that belonged to him."