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Russia Does Little To Return Plundered Art Treasures

  • Roland Eggleston

Munich, Feb. 15 (RFE/RL) - Germany's Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel says Russia shows little interest in returning paintings and other cultural treasures - seized by the Red Army at the end of the War - and now held in Russian museums.

In Bonn last week, Kinkel said the bilateral "experts commission" created to resolve the problems has not met for a year because of obstacles raised by Moscow. Last year, the Russians delayed the talks by arguing that an arrangement should not be reached before the ceremonies marking the defeat of Hitler's Germany. On other occasions, Russia raised constitutional objections to an agreement.

Kinkel's comments reflect the frustration of German museum directors and cultural experts at Russia's reluctance to make even a token return of some of the thousands of cultural treasures seized by the victorious Red Army. The exact number is unknown, but German experts believe it includes around 200,000 works of art, thousands of rare books and many hundreds of other goods including furniture, porcelain and drawings by Tintoretto, Rembrandt, Duerer and many others.

After the War, most of the looted paintings, drawings, books and other treasures were hidden in the cellars of museums, libraries monasteries and military barracks. Many were believed to have been destroyed in the ferocious final battles of 1945. It was only after the collapse of communism that museum directors reluctantly acknowledged their existence.

Russia agreed in two treaties with Bonn, in 1990 and 1992, to return all art works seized in the war. Three years ago - on Feb. 10, 1993 - Germany's Interior Minister and Russia's Culture Minister signed an agreement setting up a joint commission to work out the details. At that time, each side said it should be possible to return at least some of the treasures soon - although it was acknowledged that a comprehensive return would take years.

Since then, the mood has changed. Some Russian museum directors, backed by nationalist politicians, argue that Russia should not return any of the booty, because of the thousands of Russian treasures which were looted or destroyed by German troops during the wartime invasion of Russia. Russian experts estimate that around 200,000 works of art were either taken by German troops or destroyed.

Russian experts, who oppose the return of the treasures to Germany, say they are ready to place the works on open exhibition and make them available to scholars. Russia has already put some on display. Last year, the Hermitage in St Petersburg exhibited 74 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings which had been held in its vaults since the end of the war. They included paintings by Degas, Van Gogh , Gaugin, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Toulose-Lautrec.

Adding to the frustrations of German museums is the fact some of the treasures held by the Russians have been stolen and offered for private sale on the European and American art markets. Among them are more than 400 drawings and watercolours from a famous collection once in the possession of the German city of Bremen. They were taken to Russia in 1945 by an officer, who found them in a castle near Berlin where the Germans had hidden them for safekeeping. A Washington lawyer, Thomas Kline, said recently that more than two dozen of these Bremen works, including Rembrandts, Duerers and Poussins, have surfaced over the past few years in New York. Sold on the open market, they would be worth millions of dollars.

A New York City auction house told police in May 1994 that two men had come to it with a Duerer drawing entitled "Das Frauenbad." The drawing was clearly marked with a stamp, showing it was from the Bremen collection. So was another Duerer and two Rembrandts offered by the men. They refused any information about how they had obtaind the drawings, saying they were acting for another party.

When the auction house refused to buy the works the men left.

American art experts say "Das Frauenbad" was previously in the possession of an art museum in Baku, Azerbaijan. Local newspapers reported in late 1994 that the museum had been robbed.

Russia is also known to be holding many valuable books taken from Germany. They include a rare Gutenburg Bible, each calfskin page illustrated with floral decorations. It was taken from a book museum in Leipzig. But the Russians also took away whole libraries.

Klaus-Dieter Leman, general director of the German national librarty in Frankfurt says: "What we particularly want are the main collections of libraries from the early 16th and 17th centuries. This is the central heritage of our country, and it is sitting in Russia. I understand the political nature of the problem, and I know it will take some time to sort out. But there cannot be any question that these are the books of our nation. They aren't even used in Russia."

In his comments in Bonn last week, Germany's Foreign Minister cited an American as an example that Russia could follow. He is former U.S. Army Captain Walter Farmer, now 84. In 1945, as a 34-year-old, Farmer was placed in charge of collecting German works of art to be taken to the United States. When the time came for the first transport to leave in November 1945, Captain Farmer organised a protest, which was signed by 24 other U.S. officers, dealing with the cultural heritage of Germany. In Germany, it is known as the "Wiesbaden Manifesto".

The statenment declared that the removal of art treasures from Germany to the U.S. was "morally indefensible and cannot be justified." It pointed out that the victorious Allies were preparing to put on trial individuals who had seized cultural treasures in German-occupied countries. It said those who removed Germany's cultural treasures were guilty of the same crimes. The Manifesto also said that no outrage remained so long in national memories and created so much bitterness as removal of part of the cultural heritage.

The Manifesto had no immediate effect, but experts believe it influenced the decision of President Harry Truman, who ordered the 202 paintings returned to Berlin in 1948. Farmer was in Bonn last week to receive a high German decoration in belated recognition of what he had done.

In his comments, Foreign Minister Kinkel said the "Wiesbaden Manifesto" should set an example "for the world-wide debate over the return of cultural treasures taken in wartime."

German newspapers said the comments were clearly directed at Russia. But it was not clear whether Russia was listening.