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Europe: Germany, Russia Make Token Exchange Of Art Treasures

Germany and Russia have agreed on a minor exchange of cultural treasures stolen by their soldiers during World War II. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports that Germany hopes the deal could help ease the way to an arrangement by which Russia would return some of the truly priceless art treasures seized by the Red Army at the end of war.

Munich, 15 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The present agreement is most notable because Germany will be handing back to Russia a small piece of the legendary Amber Room which disappeared in Kaliningrad in the chaos at the end of the war. In return, Russia is returning to Germany over 100 paintings which were taken from museums in the northern German city of Bremen.

The government leader in the city-state of Bremen, Henning Scherf, told RFE/RL that the final details of the accord were agreed upon a few days ago in negotiations in Bremen. Scherf said the exchange would probably take place after the Russian presidential election at the end of March.

Scherf said he hoped that this minor agreement could lead to new talks that might one day see the return of some of the estimated 200,000 art treasures taken from Germany by the conquering Red Army. Russia's Duma (lower house) refuses to consider doing so. Two years ago, the Duma passed a law to prevent their return.

Scherf is not optimistic. He says that a larger agreement on returning German art is "years away." For the moment, he says, Germany must be satisfied with minor exchanges, adding that "there is no guarantee" the great treasures will ever be returned.

The main item in the current exchange is a small floral mosaic from the Amber Room about the size of the palm of a hand. Its value is estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The mosaic is one of an estimated 100,000 pieces of carved amber which made up the walls of the famous Amber Room in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The room was a gift to (Czar) Peter the Great by a Prussian king in 1716. Some experts say its value today could be more than $300 million.

But the Amber Room itself apparently no longer exists. It was dismantled by German troops and taken from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad in 1941. It disappeared in April 1945 during heavy fighting in the city, and most specialists believe it was probably destroyed in a fire.

The small piece now being returned to Russia surfaced in Bremen three years ago, when it was offered for sale by a pensioner who said he got it from his father, a German soldier in Russia during the war. Experts believe it was probably taken as loot by some of the soldiers guarding the Amber Room. The piece was confiscated from the pensioner by Bremen authorities, and a notary who acted on the pensioner's behalf is now being tried in Bremen for attempted fraud. The pensioner has since died.

The 101 paintings and drawings which Russia is handing over in return for the mosaic are among the hundreds of books and paintings which were taken from museums in Bremen. Bremen city officials said their return was originally promised five years ago but was delayed by what was described as "bureaucratic hurdles."

Russian specialists are now reconstructing the Amber Room with financial assistance from the German energy giant, Ruhrgas. Last year, the company offered $3.5 million to enable the work to be completed by the year 2003. At the time, a Ruhrgas spokesman described the money as a token of goodwill by the company, which will celebrate its 300th anniversary in the year 2003.

Russian workmen are said to have completed more than 40 percent of the project, working from photographs taken shortly before the war.

German art lovers still hope that one day Moscow might agree to return some of the treasures taken by its soldiers and then hidden for decades in churches, museums and cellars across Russia. The treasures include not only famous paintings and drawings by masters such as Albrecht Durer, but rare books and texts, valuable furniture and sculptures, and porcelain, gold and silver objects.

In 1997 and 1998, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin tried unsuccessfully to get the Duma to agree to the return of some of the treasures to Germany. Russian political leaders said the German army had destroyed thousands of art treasures in the Soviet Union during the war and it was only right that many of Germany's treasures should take their place.