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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Total War to Trophy War: Berlin's Lost Art

Fifty years after the Red Army marched into Berlin, restitution of World War II trophy art is creeping forward on levels as lofty as King Priam's gold and as obscure as a Sunday afternoon auction.

After a half-century of wrangling over the plundered art, Germany and Russia this spring initiated a joint commission to debate specific cases, which have included a 15th-century Gutenberg Bible and golden treasure found at the site of ancient Troy. Less celebrated, but equally challenging, are the private caches that have made their way to small auctions and sidewalk sell-offs. On every level of officialdom, say both Germans and Russians involved, the restitution process is a rat's nest of red tape and conjecture.

The German Embassy estimates that between 30,000 and 100,000 stolen works of art are still in Russian hands, said Doris Hertramf, counsellor for cultural affairs. Russia has made similar claims against Germany.

Although Bonn is holding out for a mass exchange, the Russian Culture Ministry would prefer to negotiate on a case-by-case basis. As it stands, the cultural section of the German Embassy can apply to Russian authorities about specific artworks -- but many items, stashed for years in private collections, are changing hands far from the public eye.

A small-scale version of the restitution debate put a distinct damper on a private auction last weekend, when the auction house pulled its biggest lot off the block a day before it was to be sold. According to "suspicions" by art historians, Charles Voillemot's late 19th-century painting "Odalisque" was stolen from Germany as trophy art, said Anatoly Tymovsky-Chkhartishvili, director of the auction house Magnum ARS.

As late as Friday, the auction director spoke casually of this theory, and said the Magnum auction house had cleared the sale with the German government. Then, the day before "Odalisque" was to go on sale, Tymovsky-Chkhartishvili postponed the sale "in order to avoid some kind of situation." He would not elaborate, but said an agreement had been reached "on a much higher plane" than the German Embassy, which handles most restitution issues.

As of Tuesday, an official at the German Embassy said the embassy had played no role in the decision, and that any official agreement would be conducted through his office.

Investigating one item from an unnamed private collection would be extremely difficult, Hertramf said. But even if the embassy could trace the painting to Germany with any degree of certainty, embassy officials would be powerless to reclaim it directly, Hertramf said.

"What kind of action can we take? We can't buy the picture," she said.

In the context of the entire trophy art dispute, Voillemot's painting is small potatoes. A long-awaited exhibition to display the Troy gold for the first time in 50 years will take place in 1996 at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Culture Minister Yevgeny Sidorov announced at a press conference last week. Germany -- as well as Turkey, where Troy's ruins still stand -- has laid claim to the booty, but beyond its exhibition in Russia the collection's future is unknown.

Known as Priam's gold, although it long predates the king's reign, the gold was discovered in 1873 by the German archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Stalin seized the treasures in Berlin and stowed them in the Pushkin Museum, where the centerpiece of Russian trophy art has been hidden from public view for almost 50 years. Only last year did the museum admit to having it.