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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Amber Room Mosaic to Come Home




For 50 years the old master drawings lay tucked away under a bed in a provincial city, the guilty secret of an anonymous Soviet Army officer who scooped them up from the basement of a German castle at the end of World War II as the army made its way home from Berlin.


And the 18th-century mosaic of semiprecious stones is one of four that graced the walls of the toffee-colored Amber Room in a palace outside St. Petersburg until 1941, when the entire room was dismantled and carted away by the occupying German Army.


This weekend, as fate would have it and politics has finally permitted, the 101 drawings from the Bremen Art Museum and the mosaic from the palace at Tsarskoye Selo - bits of the wreckage of a devastating war - will surface together for the first time at an exchange ceremony to be attended by President-elect Vladimir Putin and German Culture Minister Michael Naumann.


This will be the first time Russia has let go any of its so-called trophy art, a vast and uncounted trove of paintings, sculptures, archaeological finds and other cultural objects seized from Germany by Soviet troops as compensation for the extensive losses caused by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.


In a small way, it will ease some of the pain caused by the disappearance of the fabled Amber Room, a gift to Peter the Great from Frederick William I of Prussia. The room is being recreated with a $3.5 million grant from Ruhrgas, Germany's giant gas company.


"From our side, the return of even one element of the Amber Room is a fine symbol, since the Amber Room has always represented the most painful, the most poignant of our losses," said Deputy Culture Minister Pavel Khoroshilov.


Most experts caution that the exchange does not signal a softening in resistance to returning its wartime booty. The claim to the majority of the art taken from Germany is still intact, and even codified in a proposed law that would turn trophy art into national property. That proposal, which has been kicked around for three years, is expected to receive final approval this summer.


But like any law, this one has its exceptions, and it was the exemption of objects taken from Germany by freelance pillagers, like the remorseful "owner" of the Bremen drawings, that has allowed the exchange to be scheduled for Saturday at the palace at Tsarskoye Selo, which was renamed Pushkin. Other exemptions include objects taken from religious or charitable institutions, art treasures belonging to third countries not allied with Nazi Germany and valuables taken from Holocaust victims or members of the anti-Nazi resistance.


"The process is just starting," said Konstantin Akinsha, an art scholar and specialist on Soviet trophy art who now works at the U. S. Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets. "If this exchange happens, it means the ice is broken and something more will follow."


From the German side, the release of the drawings and Putin's visit are signs that after many years of painful debate, Russia is willing to take a closer look at the provenance of this art and decide on the disposition case by case.


"For the last six, seven years, Germany and Russia have not been able to find a solution, even to find a common language," said Professor Wolfgang Eichwede, director of Bremen University's Eastern European Research Institute and a top German expert on trophy art.


"Now we have the beginning of a rethinking," he said in a telephone interview. "I think both sides are looking for a way out."


It took a generation and the collapse of a political system before the cache of 101 drawings and the Amber Room mosaic even emerged from their secret hiding places.


In the early 1990s two young Soviet art scholars, Akinsha and his colleague Grigory Kozlov, then hot on the trail of hidden treasures from Germany, happened upon the retired army officer, who to this day has retained his anonymity. The officer, trained as an architect, was part of the engineering brigade that occupied Karnzow Castle outside Berlin, where the Bremen art collection had been sent for safekeeping in 1943.


His trained eye recognized the value of the artwork that was being kicked around the castle basement by Russian soldiers. He took it home but never considered it to be the property of anyone but its German owners. "He wanted the stuff to go back," said Akinsha, who together with Kozlov wrote a book documenting the estimated $65 billion worth of cultural objects still kept in secret depositories.


At the officer's request, Akinsha and Kozlov quietly delivered the drawings - which include a rare watercolor by Durer, etchings by Manet, Delacroix and Goya and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec - to the German Embassy in Moscow, where they were kept in a safe in the ambassador's office.


The key to the long-awaited exchange was found in Bremen, which has long mourned the loss of its famed Kunsthalle collection. It was in Bremen that the Amber Room mosaic turned up out of the blue at a public auction in 1997, put up for sale by the son of a German soldier who had apparently kept it as a personal souvenir. The fate of the rest of the fabled Amber Room is still unknown.