France officially returned three Nazi-looted artworks to their rightful owners today, calling it a "gesture toward justice."

French Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti presided over the ceremony on Tuesday, which saw the return of:

  • Madonna and Child (also known as Virgin and Child), a painting by 14th century artist Lippo Memmi.
  • Mountain Landscape by 16th century Flemish master Joos de Momper.
  • Portrait of a Woman, an 18th century canvas by an unknown artist.

"It's unbelievable what's happened," said Nicholas Florescu.

Florescu, 62, travelled from Houston to Paris to accept Madonna and Child, which had been looted in 1944 from his grandfather Richard Soepkez, a Jewish Romanian banker who had been based in Cannes.

"It was not even in the cards but the French government was very helpful in finding this and we owe a great gratitude to them."

Counting Tuesday's trio of paintings, France has restored 10 looted paintings to their rightful owners (or their heirs) in less than a year — part of a wider restitution effort aiding Jewish art collectors who lost treasures during the Second World War. Thousands of artworks still remain in official institutions, including an estimated 2,000 works in French museums and galleries.

Tuesday's restoration ceremony came a day ahead of the French premiere of George Clooney's star-studded film The Monuments Men, a drama based on the real-life Second World War troop that sought and saved valuable artwork and cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis.

The two events together underline Filippetti's commitment "to this gesture of remembrance," the culture ministry told media last weekend.

With files from the Associated Press