Fate of 'Lost' Art Still Rankles

Fifty-four years after the end of World War II, the battle for the return of lost and stolen art seems to have only just begun.

Russia's position is a precarious one. While new legislation continues to deny Germany the return of treasures that include a 5,000-year-old collection of Trojan gold discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, a Gutenberg Bible and paintings by Monet, Matisse and Van Gogh, Russia has also recently taken well-publicized measures to locate its own lost valuables.

On July 20 the Constitutional Court reaffirmed Russia's right under its trophy art law to hold on to artwork taken from the Reich during the war, though it also acknowledged that victims of the Nazi regime and the Allied governments should get a chance to reclaim their property. A few days earlier, the Culture Ministry published the first three volumes of a catalog of the cultural valuables Russia "lost" during World War II.

Russian cultural supporters see no contradiction between the two events.

"Why are we always talking about what Russia owes other countries?" asks Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, who has closely monitored the issue of Germany's lost valuables since the war.

"During World War II, 427 Soviet museums suffered great losses," she says. "The report by an American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial called it a purposeful destruction of Russia culture."

For Antonova, the law serves as direct compensation for losses incurred during the war.

"I think that the trophy art law is right," she says. "I even think that it is a pioneer law, because it implies responsibility for cultural crimes. If this art from Germany is to be regarded as Russia's federal property, I think that it is completely fair, and, if you believe in God, it's God's truth."

The Russian government says the Germans looted over 760,000 objects, only a fraction of which are listed in the catalog. Attempts to recoup or even locate them have required detective work on the part of the preservation department.

"For more than 55 years, Russia didn't pay attention to this subject," says Nikolai Nikandrov, deputy head of the cultural valuables preservation department of the Culture Ministry. "Nobody knows about our real losses. If you ask someone about it in Russia, he'll say he knows only about the Amber Room."

The mosaic-panel walls of the Amber Room, constructed by architect Andreas Schluter in 1709 for the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, disappeared when the Germans transferred them to Riga sometime between 1941 and 1942. They disappeared for 50 years, until one of the panels was tracked down in Germany, whereupon its unknown owner immediately put it up for sale on the fine arts black market in 1997.

"It's the result of our work," says Nikandrov. "It has begun to look as if they [the lost artwork] have become hot potatoes in the owners' hands."

But information is hard to come by, since many of the documents in the Russian archives are still stamped "top secret," and the wartime fate of many of the works remains shrouded in mystery.

"It's very difficult to check how many Russian artworks were lost in the British, French and U.S.-occupied territories in Germany," Nikandrov says.

He recalls the story of a letter written in Russian found at the bottom of a box of artwork taken out of occupied Germany and returned by the United States to the Soviet Union. The message it contained read: "What we're sending you is only rubbish from the floor." The letter was anonymous, but Nikandrov says it came from a Ukrainian who had been in the American zone and was afraid to be deported back to the Soviet Union.

In the course of the war, Nikandrov says the United States found 2,391 secret hiding places of Soviet artwork in the Alps and Bavaria. And although Russia has had no official claims to make on the United States since 1947, doubts remain as to whether everything has been recouped from the U.S.-occupied zone.

"Publishing these catalogues we pursued one end," Nikandrov says.

"We really hope that it will become possible to get back some of the art that Russia lost during World War II," he says. "But even if it won't be returned, we want to know where it is."

But is Russia really in a position to expect the return of its art after the Constitutional Court's recent decision, which chairwoman of the German parliament's culture committee Elke Leonhard called "a victory for the nationalists and communists"?

For Antonova, the condemnation that greeted this legislation was unwarranted. She believes it ignores the fact that, between 1955 and 1960, the Soviet Union returned many valuable cultural treasures to East Germany, including the famous Pergam Altar and the Dresden Gallery, with a Madonna by Raphael, and works by Titian and Botticelli.

"We didn't get any reaction to this action," she says. "I do not think that Germany will get anything else. But of course, every case depends on the particular situation."

Significantly, the court's ruling also acknowledged the possibility of artwork and cultural objects being transferred in certain cases to Germany as a goodwill gesture on the part of Russia.

Previous practice indicates that politically expedient ways can be found to return artwork, even to Germany, historically a major trading partner for Russia. Such was the case with the return of the Dresden Gallery and the Pergam Altar.

There have also been more recent examples. In 1998, Boris Yeltsin presented the Rathenau Archive to his "best friend" Helmut Kohl during a private meeting.

Also, when former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited the Netherlands in October 1997, he discussed exchanging the Koenigs collection, which once belonged to Hitler, for the famous Kazimir Malevich paintings and theory artwork bought by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam from private Russian collectors in the 1960s.

Russia is used to conducting politics through the exchange of valuables. By guarding the right to make exceptions to the trophy art law, it has secured not only cultural, but also political and economic trumps in its relations with foreign countries.