NEW YORK (Reuters) - A pair of 19th century paintings by Polish Impressionist Julian Falat, looted by the Nazis nearly seven decades ago, were returned to Polish authorities on Thursday in a ceremony in New York.
President Bronislaw Komorowski of Poland accepted the paintings -- "The Hunt" and "Off to the Hunt" -- at Poland's consulate in Manhattan. U.S. officials had seized the works of art last year from two New York auction houses.
"The two World Wars that we experienced and numerous uprisings ... left Poland's national heritage really impoverished," said Bogdan Zdrojewski, Poland's culture minister. "That is why every object that returns to our country has huge value that is both spiritual and emotional."
In August 1944, the German S.S. commander Benne Von Arent confiscated the most valuable items from Poland's National Museum, including the two paintings that were returned on Thursday. Many of the looted pieces remain missing.
U.S. officials seized the Falat paintings after Poland's government learned in 2006 that the works were being offered for sale by two auction houses. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement of Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York conducted the investigation that led to the seizure.
"No one can ever provide just compensation to the victims of the Nazis' atrocities, but it is very gratifying for our office to play a role in returning the art that they looted during World War Two to its rightful owners," said Sharon Levin, chief of the asset forfeiture unit for the federal prosecutor's office.
In a crowded room at Poland's consulate, with the two framed Falat paintings in the background, U.S. officials signed documents formally returning the works to Polish authorities.
Komorowski joked that the discovery of the artworks and their return reminded him of an American film he had seen, a story replete with international intrigue, art smugglers and secret agents. "Like the film,' he said, "this story, too, has a happy ending."
Falat, who was born in 1853 in Tuliglowy, Poland, and died in 1929, is well known for his hunting and landscape paintings.
"Off to the Hunt" was first publicly displayed at the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw in November 1901, officials said. The painting was later sold and the owner eventually returned it to the society as a gift in 1904.
U.S. authorities said "Off to the Hunt" was transferred in December 1939 from the society to Warsaw's National Museum, which the Nazis used to store Polish national treasures.
Sometime during the war, the Nazis removed the painting from the museum. In 2006, Poland's government learned that it was being offered for sale at Christie's auction house in New York.
The other returned painting, "The Hunt", was bequeathed on June 6, 1914 by its first owner, Ludwik Norblin, to the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in Warsaw. During World War Two, it was moved to the National Museum.
Its whereabouts had remained unknown until 2006, when the Polish government informed U.S. authorities that it was for sale at Doyle New York Auctioneers and Appraisers in Manhattan.
Federal prosecutors filed a civil complaint and seized the paintings, U.S. officials said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston)