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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Clinging to Its Trophy Art

ST. PETERSBURG -- Ever since the Berlin Wall came down 10 years ago, no issue has taken hold of the art world so firmly as the problem of tracking down and deciding the fate of cultural valuables looted during World War II.

Today, Russian desire to hold on to its trove of German "trophy art" - considered fair compensation for its war losses - not only collides with Germany's wish to retrieve its stolen cultural heritage, but also bucks centuries-old norms of international law that forbid the looting of cultural treasures.

Those norms were first shattered by Nazi teams of art experts sent to pillage the Soviet Union when German troops entered the country in June 1941. By the war's end, some 750,000 items of art were either destroyed or stolen. Many churches and palaces had also been destroyed or damaged.

Josef Stalin, never one to be outdone, answered in kind with a vengeance. The Red Army let loose its own Trophy Brigade on a vanquished Germany, taking everything from entire industrial enterprises to works of art.

While German factories could be rebuilt, the art that disappeared was often irreplaceable and vital to the nation's cultural identity. Relations today between Germany and Russia are for the most part cordial, but the issue of German trophy art in Russian possession remains perhaps the sorest point between the two nations.

According to Dr. Michael Franz, director of the German government's Coordination Center for the Return of Cultural Property, at least 3.5 million art items were taken from German museums, libraries, churches and archives during and after the war. Among the items lost are about 200,000 paintings, and 1 million books and manuscripts. Not all of those items might be in Russia, however, Franz cautioned.

After the war, the most valuable items - such as Impressionist paintings from private German collections, and the legendary gold of Troy, excavated in the 19th century - ended up, respectively, in Moscow's Pushkin Museum of the Fine Arts and in St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

While Western media and governments often see Russia as obstructionist on the trophy art issue, Russian officials are often quick to point out that in the mid-1950s, the country returned nearly 700,000 items of trophy art to East Germany. What remained behind, however, except for the most famous items, was kept secret and often neglected.

Now Russian officials face the immense task of cataloguing and identifying in detail all the trophy art. As Russian researchers go about their job, the art world can certainly expect some surprises.

Indeed, scholars have recently made significant discoveries. This June, the musical archive of Johann Sebastian Bach's second son, containing 5,200 manuscripts by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Handel and Vivaldi, was found in the Museum of Literature and Arts in Kiev by scholars from Harvard University and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

Since 1995, the Hermitage has been the only Russian institution to set part of its trophy art collection on permanent display. In a special exhibit entitled "Hidden Treasures Revealed," the public can now see 74 masterpieces - previously thought lost - by late 19th and early 20th century French painters, including Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Matisse, Renoir and Van Gogh. The museum also has 35 drawings by Goya. Though none is currently on display, they were introduced to the public in 1996 in a temporary exhibit.

The Pushkin Museum in Moscow has also organized temporary exhibits for the gold of Troy, and for its collection of several hundred captured European paintings from German collections, but it did so in a clumsy manner that invited controversy.

The paintings, for instance, were displayed in 1995 in an exhibit called "Twice Saved" - once by Soviet troops, and second by Soviet art restorers, as museum officials claimed. The museum's boast that these works of art had been "saved" twice was seen as mocking German sensitivities.

According to a 1990 treaty signed between Germany and the Soviet Union, any "unlawfully transferred" art treasures should be "returned to their owners or their legal successors."

But Russia has indicated that it has no intention of abiding by such treaties and norms, and instead will at best only allow German and other scholars to have information about, and access to, these works of art.

Khoroshilov believes such steps will be enough "to re-establish faith and trust between our countries." But Germany is unlikely to agree, and the issue will only continue to fester.

"I can understand the Russian point of view, concerning the destruction they suffered, because it is a very emotional topic," Franz said. "But the legal point of view is just as valid."