Looted art

The creation of a Russian-German Commission for the return of works of art: The Russian will to return war booty exists, the necessary laws do not

Long delays are foreseeable as approaches to restitution vary in both countries



Early last month, a Russian war veteran took matters into his own hands and delivered to the German embassy in Moscow a cache of drawings, prints and paintings, among which, according to the German Foreign Office, is a Dürer. A spokesman confirmed that they probably come from the Bremen Kunstverein, from which fifty paintings, 1,715 drawings and 3,000 prints went missing at the end of the war, and that experts are still examining them. He foresaw no problem in having them returned to Bremen, and that they would not be the subject of discussion at future sessions of the Russian-German Commission for the return of art treasures.

This was set up on 10 February in Dresden when delegates from Russia and Germany held their first joint session to discuss the restitution of art treasures misssing since World War II. The Russians, represented by the Minister of Culture, Yevgeniy Sidorov and the Germans, represented by the Minister of the Interior Rudolf Seiters and the Culture Ministers of the Länder of Berlin, Bremen and Saxony, expressed themselves in favour of a fair solution to the problem.

The commission, which will meet two to three times a year, will work out general proposals and arbitrate in the matter of claims lodged by both sides. However, most of the work involved in the identification of objects is to be carried out by independent groups of experts handling archives, libraries, museum collections and legal matters.

Unlike the euphoric articles which have appeared in Germany on this subject, the response in Russia has been more muted. Valeriy Kulishov, advisor to the Russian Minister for Culture on restitution matters and member of the Restitution Commission, told The Art Newspaper: “The talk at the Dresden meeting was to a large extent about a legal basis, and the protocol of the meeting itself is a kind of ‘framework’ agreement. It sets out the order in which talks are to be held, the nature of these talks, the powers of the parties involved, the level of discussions etc. However, even here there are some differences: the German position, officially supported by Bonn, is that work should be based on the international agreements signed by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, under which the issue would be limited to the return of treasures located on their territory. The Russians, on the other hand, believe that the legal framework should be considerably broader, with the whole range of international agreements and conventions applied. On this basis, art treasures which have been misplaced, lost or have ended up in private collections should either be returned or covered by compensation from the guilty party”.

“There are also some problems to do with the the nature of the joint commission. In Germany, both the Minister for Internal Affairs and the Ministers of Culture in the Länder can take independent decisions, while the Russian part of the commission is a consultative body and can only make recommendations which are subsequently ratified at State level. As far as the make-up of the commission is concerned, the Russians want it to be composed of professionals and specialists, while the Germans believe that it should above all have a strong political element”. “The newspaper and television campaign in Germany over the imminent handing over of certain art treasures is gamesmanship to exert pressure on public opinion during the talks. None of the members of the Russian delegation has given any ground for premature celebration. Only after Russia has received official lists of claims will she begin to work on bringing items to light and checking them. After all, claims on items are not the end of the matter. For example, there seems to exist an impression that Russia has all of the works from the Bremen collection. However, a certain number of these works are obviously scattered around the world”.

“The mutual return of art treasures is also being hampered by the different conditions prevalent in Germany and Russia. While a large number of the items taken from Germany are held in special State-run storage facilities and are easy to work with, the majority of works removed from Russia were scattered over the world in the post-war period”.

Valeriy Kulishov goes on to describe the legal vacuum in which Russia currently finds itself.

“There is still no mechanism in this country for taking decisions on restitution. We and our partners tacitly recognise that there are a number of captured art treasures on Russian territory. However, there have as yet been no official state decrees, announcements or acts of recognition to this effect. Without this we cannot engage in any worthwhile legal work or provide access to items. However, some items are effectively open. It is no secret that the Koenigs collection is now located in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, where, by the way, they also hold a large part of the Hungarian works of art”.

Kulishov does not rule out some complications in the talks with Germany and Hungary caused by relations between the former republics of the USSR. It seems that there is still some mileage in the situation which arose in February 1992, when at a meeting in Minsk the presidents of the Commonwealth of Independent States signed the now infamous Agreement on the Return of Cultural and Historical Treasures to their States of Origin (The Art Newspaper No. 18, May 1992, p. 2). In spite of the fact that the Russian parliament suspended the agreement on Russian territory, an interdepartmental commission, which includes Russian officials, is still at work in Minsk sorting out claims between the former republics of the USSR. Russia, in helping to restore the museums in other former republics after the war, gave them works both from its own museum collections and from war booty. And there is another problem which can only be solved in close collaboration with Ukraine and Belarus—the Polish aspect, for, according to Valeriy Kulishov, the Poles are also preparing their claims.

However, work has gone on. In the near future, following a Russian Presidential Decree, a centralised fund for the storage of captured art treasures is apparently to be set up, a kind of depository with restoration facilities. There has also been a meeting in Bremen during which the conditions for the return of the Bremen collection were worked out. Among these, according to Fedor Polenov, Head of the Russian Delegation and Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet Commission for Culture, is the intention on the German side to give Russia a number of works from the Bremen Collection for Russian museums, and also to give financial and technical aid for the restoration of the Novgorod Museum and Park, and to help in making up the museums collection which was destroyed during the war. A further agreement has also been reached on the return to Germany of a part of the library of the German town of Gotha, 300,000 volumes of which were returned by the Soviet Government to the GDR back in 1956.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Russian will to return war booty exists—the necessary laws do not'