Even the KGB Couldn't Free These Paintings

The art world in recent months has focused on a major upcoming exhibition at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in which 74 priceless Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works will be revealed to the public for the first time since Soviet authorities bolted them into secret vaults at the end of World War II. The exhibit, to open at the end of this month, is already being called one of the most significant of the century.

So while critics, and the German government, have been waiting for this momentous event, all of a sudden Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, with great secrecy and barely any advance warning, opened an exhibition of the trophy art it has sequestered in its own vaults for the last 50 years. Was the Pushkin Museum trying to steal the Hermitage's thunder?

Who knows? The exhibition itself is beautiful, with 83 finely restored works, including Francisco de Goya's sublime "Female Portrait" and Renoir's "A Bouquet of Chrysanthemums and Japanese Fan." (These are simply personal favorites, and not an artistic judgment of the finest paintings, which, believe me, I am in no position to render.)

The main thing you come away with, though, is not so much exhilaration at the beauty of the art but a nagging pain at the controversy surrounding it.

Restitution is a painful and complex issue. Both the German and Russian sides have their arguments. The Russians aggravated the situation this time by not properly informing Germany of the upcoming exhibit, leaving them as in the dark as the curious journalists at Monday's opening. Pushkin officials insist that they made no secret of this exhibit; perhaps it is more accurate to say that they did not go out of their way to draw attention to it, fearing the kind of publicized cross-examination the Hermitage has drawn.

Both Germany and Russia want the war booty and both argue that international law is on their side. Two years ago Boris Yeltsin was ready to sign some of these works over but Russian nationalists now have caught up with him. Parliament is preparing a law on "the legal status" of trophy art in Russia -- something that does not sound too promising for the Germans. On top of all this is the problem that many of the paintings going on display come from private collections in Germany rather than state galleries, meaning that the families could try to reclaim their treasures.

At Monday's opening, Pushkin Museum director Irina Antonova stated categorically that, given the catastrophic ruin and loss that the Soviets suffered at the hands of the Nazis, Russia deserves to keep the war spoils as "compensation."

Spoils are a tradition of war and have been for centuries. What has drawn attention to these trophies is that they were hidden for so long, while Soviet officials repeatedly denied their existence. While the Pushkin Museum has displayed dozens of mildly interesting replicas all these years, the cellar below has held the priceless originals, all hidden from Russian citizens as well as the rest of us.

It is amazing just how closely guarded these works were. Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin describes in his autobiography how many years ago he was given a secret midnight viewing of the Hermitage paintings that are to be displayed this month. After the viewing, he tried to get Moscow's permission to put them on display. Instead he, Leningrad's number two KGB man, was told pointedly to mind his own business.