Yeltsin’s Commission for Restitution begins work this month to legalise and declassify war booty

This includes finally addressing the disputed Koenigs Collection


There are plenty of eye witnesses to testify to the fact that the Koenigs Collection of 526 Old Master drawings ended up in the Pushkin Museum of Art, Moscow, after being removed from Schloss Pillnitz near Berlin at the end of the war. To this day, however, no Soviet or Russian official has admitted to this fact.

However, in an interview with Dutch television on 1 October, the Russian Minister for Culture and Tourism, Yevgeniy Sidorov, did say that the drawings had been “found” on Russian soil, and that an invitation had been issued to the Dutch ambassador to come and “verify” the collection, which was probably moved last year to the monastery of Pavloviy Posad (formerly Zagorsk) in an attempt by the Pushkin museum’s authorities to save their reputations after repeated accusations had been made against them both by Russians and the Dutch.

The 30 September also saw the first session of a specially created presidential Commission for Restitution. Recommendations have been made for the legalisation and declassification of items formerly kept secret; for their cataloguing; their display on exhibition and the calculation of losses incurred by both parties. Within the Commission for Restitution, which is headed by Sidorov, working groups are being set up. The Bremen Old Master drawings collection will be handled by a group under Fedor Polenov, chairman of the Russian Parliamentary Commission for Culture. Director of the Pushkin Museum, Irina Antonova, will head the group working on items from Hungarian museums, while the Koenigs collection will be the responsibility of a working group headed by Professor Viktor Grashchenkov of Moscow University.

Alongside the experts from the Commission for Restitution there will be input from representatives of the outside nations involved, and from the departments on whom the fate of the collections to a large extent depends—the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Security. The ultimate decisions will be taken at governmental, even presidential, level.

Legal problems especially affect the Koenigs collection. The Russian side does not consider the legal circumstances around the removal of the collection from Holland to Germany—the fact that the collection was freely sold in 1940 by its previous owner van Beuningen to the Director of the Dresden Gallery Hans von Posse to become part of Hitler’s projected megamuseum in Linz—to be fully clear. Meanwhile, the Dutch point to the joint Allied declaration, including Russia, issued in London in 1943, which declared financial dealings with the enemy to be null and void. This declaration was preceded by a series of analogous Royal Decrees issued just after the German invasion by the exiled Queen of the Netherlands and her government in May and June of 1940 (see The Art Newspaper No. 13, December 1991, p.1). Rumours are circulating on the basis of a hint from Sidorov that the Russians are considering a counter-claim for the Malevich collection of twenty-nine paintings kept by the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (The Art Newspaper No. 15, Feb 1992, p.2). Its former director Willem Sandberg acquired the collection in 1951 from the German architect Häring who had been entrusted with the works after Malevich’s return from Russia to Leningrad in 1927.

In the meanwhile, more than 130 works from the Bremen Old Master drawings collection, also removed to the Soviet Union at the end of the war, are scheduled to go on display at the Hermitage, St Petersburg, on 18 November.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'All right, we have got the Koenigs Collection but we still won’t tell you where'