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PARIS (Reuters) - France returned to its rightful owners on Thursday a painting by French master Henri Matisse which was seized by the Nazis in 1941 after its Jewish owner fled anti-Semitic persecutions in Germany.
The 1898 painting, "The Pink Wall," was one of thousands of paintings stolen from Jewish families during the Second World War that ended up in the custody of French authorities.
"To return this beautiful work by Matisse to its owners, the heirs of Mr Harry Fuld Jr, is an act of remembrance and reparation, at last," said Culture Minister Christine Albanel at a ceremony to hand over the painting.
The painting, which was one of 2,000 stolen works entrusted to French museums after World War Two, was recently on display in an exhibition of paintings whose owners had never been identified.
Fuld fled to Britain in 1937. Under a 1941 law stripping German Jewish emigrants of their citizenship, the Nazi regime seized his Matisse painting.
The work next surfaced in 1948, when it was found near the German town of Tuebingen in a cache left by Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer who killed himself in prison in 1945.
Based on a French customs stamp on the back of the painting which dated back to when the work was legally exported to Germany in 1914, the German authorities sent it to France in 1949.
It then lay dormant for almost six decades until a German historian made the link between a painting reported missing by Fuld and an image of the Matisse shown on an Internet database set up by France to try and trace rightful owners.
According to Culture Ministry figures, at the end of World War II France found itself in possession of 60,000 works stolen by Nazis. It returned 45,000 of them to their rightful owners by 1949.
Out of the 15,000 works that remained unclaimed, 13,000 artistically insignificant works were sold and the last 2,000, including the Matisse, were entrusted to French museums.
Reporting by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Sophie Hares