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HUNT FOR THE LOST OF NAZIS TREASURE; 70 years on, there's no end in sight.

Byline: Keith McLeod

IT WAS the biggest crime spree in European history.

And even though more than 70 years have passed since the Nazis began looting the continent, thousands of Jewish families still don't know what happened to the art treasures stolen from their murdered ancestors. Last night, a few plundered paintings were a step closer to going home, after Austria's culture ministry said seven works in a Vienna museum should be returned to the families of their rightful owners.

But the case only highlighted the huge difficulties involved in giving justice to the victims of Nazi theft.

The ministry ruled that the paintings - five by 20th century master Egon Schiele and two by Viennese artist Anton Romako - had either been stolen or given up by their owners against their will.

However, officials don't have the power to force the Leopold Museum, whose late founder was accused of knowingly buying Nazi art, to give them back.

It was far from clear last night whether any of the pictures would be returned.

It's a familiar story in government offices and courtrooms all over Europe.

Some museums and galleries try hard to keep masterpieces tainted by links to Nazi crimes. And experts fear many of the estimated 650,000 stolen art and religious treasures will never be found or returned.

Willi Korte, a leading authority on looted Nai art, said recently: "We have no idea how much is out there. All those who say there's not much left to do should think twice."

The Nazis loved stealing almost as much as they enjoyed killing. As well as art, they took gold, silver, cash, bonds, shares and jewellery from innocent victims they regarded as less than human.

Gallows They stole Jewish businesses and moved into Jewish homes. And after sending the rightful owners to their deaths, they stripped them of everything, even their wedding rings, gold teeth and hair, before sending them to the gas chambers.

But the fascists loved to believe they were men of culture. And art treasures were their favourite targets.

One of the greatest works they stole was Portrait of a Young Man, by 16th century master Raphael.

It was last seen on the walls of sadist Hans Frank, the brutal governor of southern Poland who went to the gallows at Nuremberg. It would be worth more than pounds 60million today.

The vainest Nazi of them all, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering, single-handedly stole 2000 works of art for his villa near Berlin.

He loaded his hoard on to private trains at the end of the war but they were intercepted by the Allies.

Goering was also condemned at Nuremberg but used a cyanide capsule to cheat the hangman.

As well as stealing for themselves, the Nazis snatched thousands of works of art for the "Fuhrermuseum", a monument to Hitler's ego in the grandiose new capital they planned but never got to build.

Overall, they stole as much as 20 per cent of all the art in Europe.

Many treasures were recovered at the end of the war but around 100,000 are still missing. Large numbers could by lying in Swiss or South American bank vaults.

And some art experts believe the families of their murdered owners have no right to get them back.

Former Royal Academy exhibitions director Norman Rosenthal, himself the child of Jewish refugees, said last year: "The Nazi period was unspeakably awful but history is history. You can't turn the clock back or make things good again through art."

CAPTION(S):

KILLERS & THIEVES: Nazis like Goering, left, plundered Europe of its art, and only some was recovered by Allies. They also stole wedding rings from Jews they murdered VANISHED: Raphael's masterpiece
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Nov 25, 2010
Words:616
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