MUNICH, Mar 12 (RFE/RL) - In ancient days, sacking conquered cities and looting their treasures was the unchallenged right of the victors. Legend has it that after Greek soldiers hidden inside a wooden horse threw open the gates of Troy 3,500 years ago, the conquerors made off with an immense treasure known as the Gold of Priam.
Now, a spectacular exhibition of golden treasure from ancient Troy is scheduled to open in Moscow next month. The Pushkin Museum plans to display more than 260 gold-and-silver pieces, which were hidden away in its cellars from 1945 until 1993.
The exhibition gives new currency to the expression "to the victor belongs the spoils." It renews an old argument between Russia and Germany over the return of art treasures looted by the Soviet army at the end of World War Two.
German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, discovered the treasure in 1873 while excavating the site of ancient Troy, now located in Turkey near the Dardanelles. He wrote excitedly of - as he put it - "gold beakers weighing pounds, huge silver jugs, golden diadems and necklaces made up of small plates of gold joined together." The treasure is known as the Gold of Priam because it supposedly was collected by the legendary King Priam of Troy. Priam was killed in the battle when the Greeks sacked the city. Altogether, the archaeologist found 8,000 pieces and had them shipped to Berlin with instructions to keep them there forever.
Invading Soviet troops found the treasure in Berlin in May 1945 and sent it to Moscow. For 48 years, the Pushkin Museum kept it secreted still in the boxes from which it left Berlin. Not until almost three years ago did the museum reluctantly admit that it held the treasure.
German authorities put in a claim for its return as soon as the museum acknowledged its existence in August 1993. The German government considers it one of the most important of the thousands of cultural treasures seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war. The exact number of art treasures seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the war is unknown, but German experts believe it includes about 200,000 works of art, thousands of rare books and manuscrupts and other treasures including furniture and porcelain.
In 1990 and again in 1992, Russia signed agreements with Bonn on the return of all art treasures seized during the war. But since then, the mood has changed. A joint Russo-German commission established in February 1993 to negotiate the repatriation of such treasures has made no progress. In a recent interview, one of the German negotiators, Wolfgang Eichwede, said: "The Russians are using almost any excuse to keep the treasure."
Eichwede said some Russian officials argue that the treasure should be considered part of the world's heritage, rather than just a German possession. They say that the bulk of it should remain in Russia, which from time to time would send parts of it to other countries for exhibition.
Similar suggestions have been made about many of the other cultural treasures taken by Russian troops, even including some voluntarily returned by private individuals. German officials say Russia apparently wants to keep a large collection of paintings which were taken from Germany in 1945 and hidden in the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. Last year, 74 of them were exhibited at the Hermitage for the first time. They included works by van Gogh, Degas, Gaugin, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec.
The German negotiator said the German Embassy in Moscow is holding 101 drawings from a famous collection once in the possession of the German city of Bremen. They were returned to the embassy three years ago by a Russian veteran. But the Russians won't give permission for their transport to Germany. In another example, Eichwede said more than 6,000 books taken from the German city of Gotha have been packed and awaiting transport to Germany for more than two years. The Russians won't allow their trasnport.
Eichwede said he had seen an internal memorandum from the Russian cultural ministry making a different argument. That is, that Russia should not return any of the booty because Nazi troops during the war looted or destroyed Russian treasures.
Germany acknowledges that Nazi troops looted or destroyed thousands of art treasures in the Soviet Union. Eichwede said most of the stolen goods have since disappeared into private collections and are difficult to locate. He said he believes Nazi troops returning from Russia brought back paintings, books and art treasures. He is appealing for Germans to provide information about any such possessions. Eichweide said that many items were collected by U.S. military authorities in Germany at the end of the war, for return to the Soviet Union. He said there are records of more than 500,000 shipments to the Soviet Union. In contrast, he said, not a single item has come the other way.
Germany is not the only country seeking the return of cultural treasures from Russia. The Netherlands, Ukraine and Hungary are among other countries which are trying to regain priceless works of art taken from museums, galleries and private collections. The Netherlands brought up the issue fruitlessly in the Council of Europe at the end of January, during Russia's successful negotiations for membership in the Council.