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Russia: Germans Expect To Challenge Art Ruling

Bonn, 6 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Germany says Russian parliamentarians opposed to the repatriation of German art treasures looted by the Red Army in World War II have "scored a point" in the legal battle but have not yet won.

The Russian constitutional court today ruled that President Boris Yeltsin must sign a law banning the repatriation of the art treasures. The law has twice been approved by the Duma.

About 200,000 items are involved, including gold treasures, thousands of rare books, paintings and drawings as well as porcelain collections and furniture. The looted goods include the so-called "Gold of Troy," found by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann on the site of the ancient Greek city of Troy in 1873. It is now believed to be at least 1,200 years older than Troy. Russian troops took it from a museum in Berlin in 1945.

In 1995 Russia also put on display in St. Petersburg 74 impressionist and post-impressionist paintings taken from Germany during the war. The included paintings by Degas, van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne and Toulouse-Lautrec, which German museums would love to have back.

Yeltsin opposes the law because he believes it would damage relations between Germany and Russia. Last year he declined to sign it because of procedural irregularities in the parliamentary voting.

A Bonn Foreign Ministry official today said that although the ruling appeared final, legal experts believed the way was still open for Yeltsin to challenge the content of the law and its individual parts. "We understand that President Yeltsin's legal advisors also believe that a challenge to the content is possible," the German official said.

The German Foreign Ministry pointed out that Russia agreed to return to Germany all art works seized in the war in two treaties signed with Bonn -- in 1990 and 1992. On February 10, 1993, the then German interior minister and the Russian culture minister signed an agreement establishing a joint commission to work out the details. At that time, both ministers said it should be possible to return at least some treasures within a short period of time although they acknowledged that a comprehensive repatriation agreement would take years to achieve.

However, Germany subsequently charged that in 1995 Russian cultural officials delayed the negotiations by arguing that an arrangement should not be reached before the ceremonies marking the defeat of Hitler Germany. On other occasions Russia used constitutional objections.

The main objection -- voiced by many members of the Duma and by museum directors -- is that German troops destroyed or looted thousands of Russian treasures during the wartime invasion of Russia and Russia should keep most of what its own troops seized as compensation.

Adding to the German frustration is the fact that some of the treasures held by Russian museums have been stolen and offered for private sale to European and U.S. art collectors. In 1996 a Washington lawyer, Thomas Kline, said at least a dozen works taken from museums in the German port of Bremen, had surfaced in New York.