France offers masterpieces to Israel

Haaretz 2 March 2004
By Amiram Barkat

France intends to offer Israeli museums 14 masterpieces, some or all of which may have been confiscated from Jews by the Nazis.

However, France demands that Israel first passes a law prohibiting its courts from dealing with ownership suits, if any are filed.

The Foreign Ministry yesterday received from the Israeli Embassy in Paris a list of the masterpieces, which include works by impressionists Monet, Renoir and Sisley. The overall worth of the pieces is estimated at tens of millions of dollars.

All the paintings are currently exhibited in the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay and various smaller museums throughout France.

The French said they are prepared to lend the paintings to Israeli museums for a long period of time for no payment. An Israeli source close to the negotiations said the paintings would be given to Israel for an unlimited period of time.

However, France said it would only go through with the deal on the condition that legislation is enacted to prevent ownership suits.

Next week a joint team of officials from the Foreign, Education and Justice ministries is due to convene to discuss promoting the legislation.

The paintings are part of a collection of some 2,000 objets d'art that were confiscated by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Today they are owned by France's national museum authority. French authorities have no information regarding the owners of the paintings, but various commissions of inquiry have established that it can be assumed that most of the objects were owned by Jews.

In 2001, a committee appointed by the French prime minister recommended offering to loan items from the collection to Jewish museums in France and Israeli museums. Talks between the foreign ministries began about a year and a half ago, during the visit of the head of the Foreign Ministry's diaspora department, Nimrod Barkan, to France.

A government source involved in the negotiations told Haaretz yesterday that the French consider the art loan as "paying a moral debt to the Jewish people."

The source said the initiative serves a number of Israeli interests. "First, it is a valuable contribution to Israeli museums. Second, it is an act of much symbolic importance regarding the return of Jewish property that was robbed in Europe, and third, the initiative would go a long way to improving the relations between France and Israel," he said.
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