Sometimes nature imitates art, and truth is more implausible than fiction. Last August, Edgar Award-winning author Aaron Elkins moved to Carmel after putting the finishing touches on his latest novel, an international art thriller called Loot. Little did he know, his new neighbors could have sprung straight from the pages of his book.

In his novel, published this February by William Morrow, a mysterious Old Master painting is brought into a Boston pawnshop by a man with a Russian accent. When the pawnshop owner is murdered the next day, curator-turned-investigator Ben Revere embarks on an international search for the roots of the priceless painting, and becomes embroiled in the shadowy world of art collections looted by the Nazis in the 1930s and early ''40s, mostly from European Jews.

Revere''s fictionalized search--and Elkins'' own actual research for the book--took him to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which is still holding hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork stolen by the Nazis; to Mafia figures in Budapest, part of an international crime network that trafficks in that stolen art today; and to the Altaussee salt mines of Austria, where the Nazis meticulously catalogued and stored much of their stolen loot (see sidebar).

Shortly after moving to Carmel, Elkins met his neighbors, an older couple, who told him that the wife--originally an Austrian Jew--had lived through that same experience. (The couple wishes to remain anonymous.)

In 1938, the wife''s father, Frederic Unger, had his entire art collection seized by the Nazis as "ransom" for allowing him and his family to escape Austria for Paris, via Switzerland. They made a deal with the Gestapo, and agreed to pay a huge sum to buy back their stolen art and furniture, which was shipped from Austria to Paris and kept crated in a state warehouse. After unsucessful efforts to obtain the rights to those crates, the Ungers finally left Paris in 1939 just ahead of the German invasion, and made their way to California.

Most of the Ungers'' stolen paintings were restored to them after the war, with the help of the U.S. Army''s art recovery unit. Two 17th-century Dutch paintings and an 18th-century French work, which the Ungers presented to the Louvre in 1938 when they were hoping to acquire French citizenship, were kept by the French national museum, who insisted they had been given "as a gift." The two Dutch pieces hang today in the Louvre''s galleries, with a plaque identifying them as "donated by the Unger family." The third painting seems to have disappeared.

A French government official reportedly told the family, "If the museum had to give back all the paintings we acquired under dubious circumstances, we''d have nothing on our walls."

Two of the family''s Old Master paintings, however, were never located. "They were considered the most valuable of my father''s collection," says Unger''s daughter.

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This past December, Unger''s daughter and her husband learned that one of the two missing paintings--an early 16th-century "Madonna and Child" by Italian master Jacopo Sellaio--had been sold at auction in 1985 by Christie''s of London. They are now trying to locate the buyer, and state their claim to the painting.

More than a million works of art were looted by the Nazis during the war period. About 110,000 paintings--and at least that number of smaller objects such as jewelry and valuable coins--were never returned to their original owners, according to Dr. Constance Lowenthal, director of the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress in New York. It was only after turning to Lowenthal''s office last fall that the Carmel couple learned of Christie''s sale of their painting.

Today, more than 50 years later, there has been a worldwide burst of interest in recovering goods and money taken from European Jews by the Nazis. Very few, however, says Lowenthal, involve cases of stolen artwork. In fact, she says she knows of only about 20 cases of contested ownership in the past 15 years.

The Carmel case is one of them, she says. And the couple''s chances of recovering their stolen painting depend greatly on where the painting is physically located, because the couple would have to bring their lawsuit in the country where the painting is found.

In Britain or North America, Lowenthal explains, common law applies. A person cannot get "good title," or legal ownership, of a thing that was stolen from someone else. Legal ownership remains with the theft victim. In most of Europe, however, civil law applies: A person who buys an object "in good faith" has as much right to it, if not more, than the original owner, even if the object was stolen. (This "good faith purchaser" rule figures prominently in Elkins'' book.)

Frederic Unger''s daughter and son-in-law in Carmel aren''t sure what they''ll do. "There''s no guarantee that the person who bought it from Christie''s hasn''t sold it again, privately," says the son-in-law. It hasn''t been sold at any of the major art auction houses since 1985, because that information would show up on computer databases.

"We don''t even know what country it''s in," says Unger''s daughter. While her husband would "like to see justice done," she says her major interest is more sentimental.

"I''d like to see the painting again," she says wistfully. "It''s been more than 60 years since I''ve seen it, and I was very fond of it." cw

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