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Russia: Germany Sees Slow Progress In Regaining Art Treasures

  • Roland Eggleston

German culture officials are distressed that negotiations with Russia on the return of art works taken during World War II have virtually ground to a halt. According to German sources, a recent international conference on looted art held in Moscow failed to make any progress and, in the view of some, demonstrated a Russian reluctance to return art works to Germany, Hungary, Poland, and other countries.

Munich, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An international conference on the return of art works plundered during World War II was convened early this month by Yekaterina Genieva, director of Moscow's Library for Foreign Literature. The intention was to find compromises that would enable the return of at least some of the art works taken by Soviet troops from Germany and other European countries during the war.

It is believed that Russia still holds more than 134,000 works of art removed from Germany by Soviet troops. These include paintings by Van Gogh and Degas, sculptures, paintings, and centuries-old books -- including a Gutenburg bible. Russia also retains thousands of similar items taken from Hungary, Poland, and other Eastern European countries.

Negotiations between Russia and Germany have been underway since 1991 but so far have produced very limited results. Negotiations with other countries have been equally unsuccessful, as their representatives made clear at the Moscow conference.

During the meeting, Germany was represented for the first time not only by art experts but also by a team of lawyers who tried to find ways around Russia's restrictions. They proposed, among other things, a Russian-German exhibition in Germany with a guarantee by Berlin that the works would be returned to Russia. They also revived the long-discarded idea of a Russian-German foundation to administer the art works now in Russian hands.

A German lawyer, Karin Wollmann, said the proposals fell on deaf ears. She said some of the Russian participants showed interest in the German suggestions, but most of the officials did not. She said a senior official at Russia's Ministry of Culture, Yuri Titov, left the impression it could be a long time before all the hurdles were overcome. "Russia has always been reluctant to return these works of art, but now the negotiations have virtually come to a standstill. It is difficult to see what we can do to invigorate them."

The Moscow conference ended without any progress being made on claims by Germany, Hungary, Poland, or other countries.

Germany's only real success in the decade-long negotiations on the looted art came last year, when Russia issued an export license for 101 drawings and engravings that were taken from the Bremen Kunsthalle. Among 43 drawings and 56 graphic prints were works by Durer, Goya, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Delacroix, and several Dutch and Flemish artists. The heirs of the Soviet officer who took them gave them to the German embassy in 1993, but Russian law had prevented their return.

The return was made possible by changes in Russian law to differentiate between officially collected Soviet spoils of war and looting by individual Soviet soldiers.

German negotiators, however, have not been able to retrieve another 362 drawings that were taken by a former Soviet officer, Viktor Baldin. They also include works by Durer, Goya, and other world-renown artists. The works are believed to be in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, where 138 of them were exhibited in 1992.

Germany's current chief goal is the return of the 14th-century stained-glass windows that once graced the Marienkirche in the eastern German city of Frankfurt an der Oder. They are now in storage at the Hermitage. The German Cultural Ministry in Berlin says negotiations for their return have been underway for some time. But the director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovski, says he first wants to exhibit them to the Russian public. The windows are important for art historians for their depiction of the life of the Antichrist in a parody of the life of Jesus.

The Cultural Ministry says it still hopes that Russia will act generously because of the help donated by Germany in the restoration of the famous Amber Room in a palace at Tsarskoje Selo near Saint Petersburg. It was dismantled by German troops in 1941 and sent to Kaliningrad, where it disappeared in the heavy fighting at the end of the war. Most experts believe it was probably destroyed in a fire.

The room is being recreated with the help of a $3.5 million grant from the giant German gas company, Ruhrgas. Germany has also returned a mosaic and a chest of drawers from the Amber Room that turned up in Germany.

The Moscow conference also heard from Hungarian cultural experts seeking the return of books, paintings, porcelain, statues, and other goods taken from the collections of wealthy families and from banks, museums, and churches. The Ministry of Culture in Budapest has published a list of more than 3,000 items known to have been taken.

By chance, the conference happened to coincide with an exhibition in Moscow of some of these valuable old Hungarian books and manuscripts. They were once the pride of the library at the protestant religious college at Szaroszpatak in northeastern Hungary. They have been stored since the war in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod. Hungarian church authorities had placed the most valuable volumes and prints in two banks in Budapest for safety, but they were discovered when the banks were looted. Among them are 16th- and 17th-century religious prints published in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

German lawyer Wollmann says a major problem is that Russian authorities actually discourage individuals from returning art treasures the way the heirs of the officer who took the Bremen drawings eventually returned them to the German embassy. She said that when the issue came up at the Moscow conference, Russian cultural official Titov said the task of returning the works of art should be left to his ministry.

"One serious problem is that the Russian authorities want to keep everything under the control of the Ministry of Culture. We know of private individuals who want to return works of art directly without too much bureaucracy, but the ministry strongly opposes such initiatives."

An official of the German Culture Ministry -- who asked not to be identified -- told RFE/RL that despite the problems, current Russian law does allow some opportunities for museums and even individuals to apply for the return of their collections.

But the official warned that it would not be easy. He said that in most cases, months -- and possibly years -- of patient and imaginative negotiations would be required before an agreement could be reached that would satisfy both sides.