From time to time, you read about art that the Third Reich sized from Jewish collectors before carting them off to death camps. And invariably, when the collectors' heirs succeed in getting their work returned, it's the result of a court ruling. This was the case of Gustave Klimt's portrait of his friend, the Viennese Jewess Adele Bloch-Bauer. One of her descendants had to take the Austrian government to court to get justice.

What's mine is mine and what's yours is mine

Obstinate to this day, Germans and Austrians continue to hold onto art carried off by the Nazi's as if entitled to it.

A current case involves Adolphe Schloss, a Jewish Art collector who had gathered some 300 masterworks of the 17th century’s Dutch Golden Age and that the Fuhrer wanted for himself. Among the works grabbed was “Portrait of a Man” by Bartholomaus van der Helst, a Rembrandt contemporary more admired in his day. The Schloss children tried to hide their father’s collection from the Nazis in a chateau in France.

When half is not more than zero

Now, these seven decades later, the portrait is in the hands of an Austrian woman who refuses to return it. Her country’s law protects her because she says her purchase was made without knowing it was stolen. But here’s the thing. She’s willing to split the profits from the auction sale with the Schloss family.

This is a little like the Bible story of King Solomon offering to split a baby in half to settle an argument between two women claiming to be the mother. The woman making the false claim told the king to go ahead and halve the baby, making clear to him who the true mother was. Evidently, the woman holding onto to the portrait sees art as currency.

But selling a prized work can never be an option for the Schloss family. Apparently it matters in what country art pilfered by the Nazis is held. “If this were in France,” the family lawyer, Antoine Comte, told the Washington Post, “it would be seized by the police and these people would be indicted. In Austria, the legal technicalities are not the same.”

War without end

The Jewish Virtual Library shows that the Third Reich swiped a ton of art, and stashed it in some thousand storerooms throughout Austria and Germany.

Roughly 700,000 of these have been given back to their rightful owners, thanks to databases and latter-day laws. But there’s still a lot out there, held even by major museums. Some of these have cooperated, like England’s National Gallery of Art, which returned a Frans Snyder still life to a Jewish family in France who lost it to Hitler’s henchmen. Why do museums keep stolen art? They make money on it. Making the point is the British Museum’s refusal to return 253 Elgin Marbles spirited away from the Parthenon and the reason is easy to know: the marbles are the treasure house’s biggest visitor draw. The Schloss family says there are 170 works still missing from their father’s collection. How to find them? Follow the money.