PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Shifting debris and twisted metal by hand, Haitian workers backed by Japanese U.N. military engineers on Monday rescued remaining valuable paintings and sculptures from the collapsed rubble of one of Haiti's most notable art museums.
The workers and U.N. troops were trying to salvage what they could of Haiti's rich artistic heritage, ravaged by the January 12 earthquake that may have killed up to 300,000 people, according to the country's president.
Port-au-Prince's Nader Art Museum, which with 12,000 paintings housed probably the world's most important private collection of Haitian art, was reduced to rubble by the quake, which also badly damaged the presidential palace, the city cathedral and many other historic buildings.
Since the quake struck six weeks ago, gallery staff have been carefully extracting the most important works from the wreckage. Brightly-colored canvases, many torn and smeared with dust, are piled to one side, while empty wooden frames are stacked in another pile.
Workers carry away wooden and metal sculptures, some missing arms and legs in a grotesque reflection of the horrific human injuries inflicted by the quake.
Georges Nader Jr., 40, son of museum owner Georges S. Nader, said the 'search and rescue' phase of the museum salvage operation was almost over.
"We've been digging for a month ... the hand removal stage is almost over, then heavy machinery will move in," he said. "But if you put a mechanical digger in there right away, you will lose everything."
He was philosophical about the loss to the collection.
"I think about 50 percent, with some kind of restoration, will be salvageable," Nader said. A separate Nader gallery in Petionville district survived the quake.
About 95 percent of the Haitian masters part of the museum collection, including works by Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948) and Philome Obin (1892-1986), survived because they were housed in a front part of the collapsed building, Nader said.
"Some are not even scratched. We have someone working on restoration, where necessary, right now," he added.
Asked if the collection was insured," Nader laughed wryly: "If it was, I wouldn't be here".
Of the museum's sculptures, reflecting the rich African heritage of Haiti, which won independence through an 1804 slave revolt, Nader put losses at 60-70 percent.
"When we pulled the sculptures out, some of them had broken arms and legs," he said.
Japanese U.N. officers wearing blue caps and helmets and the shoulder patches of Japan's Central Readiness Regiment, supervised laborers and a mechanical digger.
Around 200 Japanese troops are participating in the international relief operation in Haiti, and this number would rise to over 300 in March, said Captain Shingo Hayakawa.
Nader's father George, 78, who started the collection in 1966, and his mother, both survived the quake.
Nader said he believed much of the Caribbean's country's artistic patrimony, including the famed 1950s mural paintings of the Sainte Trinite Cathedral, had been lost.
But amazingly, many of the city's oldest houses, which are built of wood in the elaborate "gingerbread" Caribbean style, withstood the magnitude 7 quake, while hundreds of more modern concrete, steel and mortar structures crumbled.
"This would a good time to restore the old houses," Nader said.
France, Haiti's former colonial master, will draw up a preparatory study for reconstruction of the wrecked presidential palace, and has offered to restore a damaged 1822 painting depicting Haitian independence heroes which was salvaged by a French team from inside the ornate white palace.
Editing by Alan Elsner