PARIS - France is returning seven paintings taken from their Jewish owners during World War II, part of an ongoing effort to give back hundreds of looted artworks that still hang in the Louvre and other museums.
The works were stolen or sold under duress up to seven decades ago as their Jewish owners fled Nazi-occupied Europe. All seven were destined for display in the art gallery Adolf Hitler wanted to build in his birthplace of Linz, Austria, according to a catalog for the planned museum.
At the end of the war, with Hitler dead and European cities rebuilding, artworks were left "unclaimed," and many thousands that were thought to have been French-owned found their ways into the country's top museums.
The move to return the seven paintings ends years of struggle for the two families, whose claims were validated by the French government last year after years of researching the fates of the works.
"This is incredibly rare. It's the largest number of paintings we've been able to give back to Jewish families in over a decade," said Bruno Saunier of the National Museums Agency.
Many of the 100,000 possessions looted, stolen or appropriated between 1940 and 1944 in France have been returned to Jewish families, but Saunier said the country has increased its efforts in the past five years to locate the rightful owners of what the French government says are 2,000 artworks still in state institutions.
Archiving errors and the challenge of identifying the paintings have made it slow going.
As anti-Semitism gripped Europe, many Jewish families sold their belongings or simply fled, leaving hundreds of thousands of empty homes and valuables up for grabs for individuals or the state.
Six of the paintings - among them works by Alessandro Longhi, Sebastiano Ricci and Gaspare Diziani - were owned by Richard Neumann, an Austrian Jew whose ticket out of France was his art collection, which he sold off at a fraction of its value.
It is not clear to whom Neumann sold them, and the route they took to show up in French museums is unclear. They found places at the Louvre, the Museum of Modern Art of Saint-Etienne, the Agen Fine Arts Museum and the Tours Fine Art Museum.
Neumann's grandson, Tom Selldorff, was a young boy in 1930s Vienna when he last saw his grandfather's collection. At 82, the U.S. resident is going to get them back and wants to pass a piece of his Austrian grandfather's heritage down to his children.
"Tom is 82 years old. ... So time is important; they need to act quickly," said Muriel de Bastier, art chief of the Spoliation Victim's Compensation Commission, a French government body that helps families all over the world get back their stolen work.
The other painting, "The Halt" by Dutch painter Pieter Jansz Van Asch, was stolen by the Gestapo in Prague in 1939 from a Jewish banker, Josef Wiener, who was later deported and died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic.
After the war, the painting was confused with a work owned by a Frenchman and erroneously sent to Paris, so Wiener's widow's efforts to locate the painting in Germany were fruitless.
For years it hung in the Louvre, until the family finally tracked it down online in the mid-2000s. After problems identifying the painting were cleared up, then-French Prime Minister Francois Fillon gave the family the green light to get it back last year.
Other Jewish-owned property was "legally" appropriated by the state itself. Some 100,000 houses were seized and sold to non-Jews between 1940 and 1944, as the Vichy government copied the Nazis' anti-Semitic policy of "Aryanization" - of displacing Jews from society. The French state then pocketed the money.
A national exhibit at Paris' Shoah Memorial confronts the issue for the first time, tracing the 1941 creation of a commission that enforced the seizures - often with the help of volunteers, coldly called "administrators." They exercised full rights over the property of Jewish families.
All around the country, billboards, posters and classified ads in newspapers popped up calling on the public to buy the stolen property.
The exhibit features one that reads "For sale: Beautiful bourgeois home," and another in bold writing: "Sale of Jewish property ... belonging to (an) Israelite."
The exhibit's curator, Tal Bruttman, said this is the only time in history that the state actually called on the whole nation to take part in anti-Semitism.
"It's a crucial story that's not been told before," Bruttman said. The exhibit runs until Sept. 21.