Pushkin Museum director on restitution: “We don’t owe anybody anything”

The doyenne of the Russian museum profession, Irina Antonova, opposes returning “trophy” works of art


As director of the Pushkin Museum, I am naturally particularly sensitive to the problems it faces. In 1945, having completed my university education, I began working at the Fine Art Museum and was directly involved with receiving the collections that were handed over to us. We did not take these collections away from anybody, nor did we steal them; we were told it was our duty to look after them and we have honoured that duty.

If you ask me what lies at the heart of the problem of returning the cultural valuables, I would say that it is to define their legal status. These have been described as stolen goods, the spoils of war, trophy items and goodness knows what else. Furthermore, defining their legal status is not the job of libraries, museums and archives but of the government. The government ought to make a clear statement on the ownership of these works of art, now, in 1994. For years, I have been trying to get an answer to this question. Now there is a document that has been drawn up by the Institute of State and Law. It says that everything currently in Russia is the property of the Russian Federation. This document should be made public, not kept secret.

I have my own opinion on this question, an opinion I am not forcing on anyone, and which many might well disagree with, nevertheless it is what I feel. I regard a sense of truth as fundamental: a country which during the war years lost such an enormous number of cultural valuables, not to mention human lives, is entitled to some sort of compensation.

Remember the state of the area around Leningrad, the fate of the Amber Room; remember the disfigured interiors and barbarously devastated museums; and remember how many works disappeared without trace. An entire cultural heritage was swept away. The country that suffered such horrors is entitled to some form of compensation. It was not we who started the war, but we sustained the greatest losses. The compensation should take the form not of tights or training shoes, nor even of factories, but nothing other than the cultural heritage of the country that started the war.

Another point in our favour is that all the works of art were delivered to our museums on the orders of the Allied forces or else of the government. That is, it was done officially. The documents were formally sealed, and many of them bear the words: “In compensation for damage suffered”.

Now we are asked why we don’t make claims and present lists of the works we lost. What documents can we work from? They were all destroyed when the museums were sacked. The works found their way into the hands of private collectors and have been sold on. America is said to be saturated with artefacts from Russian museums. I believe the Germans when they say they don’t have any of the works in question. Of course not. They have all been sold. And so a strange situation has arisen: the fact of having kept and looked after the collections so carefully has turned to our disadvantage.

Trying for so long to conceal the presence of German collections in our museum was probably an error. The deep-rooted Russian habit of keeping silent has not done us any good, but such were the times. In the past—and no one can deny it—I have been to our Ministers and urged them to declare officially that the museum had these collections in its keeping. True, we have not exhibited them for fifty years, but throughout that time they have been carefully looked after and conserved and they are in excellent condition. Our main concern has been to conserve them, not to spoil, sell or let them go missing. Not only restorers have laboured over these works, but men of the calibre of Pavel Korin.

The process of transferring works of art is nothing new. It had already begun in the Fifties and Sixties, but those were not legal but political decisions and actions. I know that many famous art experts, including Vippes and Lazarev, disagreed with it. All museums have items from other countries in their collections, some obtained in the aftermath of war. How did the Louvre build up its collection? What should we do about the works of art taken from Italy during the Napoleonic wars? And what about Indian artefacts in American museums? How did they get there? I do not want to judge anybody, I am just stating facts.

The debate on this issue has certainly reached a new phase. Maybe it will have to be submitted to UNESCO. For myself, I am convinced that in trying to resolve these disputes between our countries, law should be paramount. I think we have already spent long enough in the dock. We are guilty of nothing.

There is a Russo-German treaty on the exchange of works of art removed illegally, but in point of fact the exchanges have not been reciprocal. There has been no exchange. Germany claims that none of our heritage is to be found on its territory, and that the works in question have been sold to private collections. Sometimes it is said that we should give back 10% and keep 90%; at other times, that it should be fifty-fifty. Some say the damage should be compensated for in money; and this is where the arbitrary creeps in.

If the law on federal property is enacted and the pictures and all the other artefacts currently kept in our museums are deemed to be Russian property, I am sure this decision will meet with international approval. However, I am not a legal expert and I cannot vouch for this. If the law does come into force, then returning any picture from this collection would be equivalent to giving away the “Boyarynya Morozova” [a painting by Vasily Surikov, emblematic of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery]. It could happen, but I would like to see the person brave enough to put his signature to such a decision. Even if it were for the highest motives; even to ensure the financial health of the country.

But I think it is imperative that these paintings go on show so that they can be brought back into cultural circulation for humanity as a whole. And our museum is making no small effort to achieve this. I recently obtained permission from the Ministry of Culture to display a whole series of works at our museum. We will not try to conceal their origins. People should have the opportunity to see them in our museum while the question of their ownership is pending.

A number of sensational and plainly malicious articles have recently appeared in the German press, in Stern and Der Spiegel, heaping accusations on our museum and those who work with us. They accuse us of concealing the German collections and wanting to take them for ourselves. They altogether forget that during the war we lost more works of art than are now to be found in Russia’s museums, archives and libraries. They forget that we have looked after them with great care for many years. There has been much profiteering over this problem, and many private and proprietorial interest are at stake. I would like to be able to say that interest in this issue arises from genuine national feeling and love of art, but I doubt it.

In the past I have written: “We do not owe anyone anything”. I am prepared to repeat it now.

First published in Nadavya Nazavinaya Gazeta 5 May 1994

Member of the Russian Federation’s State Commission for the restitution of works of art

Background notes

The historic agreement between Mikhail Gorbachev and Chancellor Kohl of 10 November 1990 has as article 16: “The Bundesrepublik Deutschland and the USSR pledge themselves to look after any cultural property on their territory belonging to the other side. They agree to return to their owners or their legal successors any property which was brought in illegally or dispersed.”

This was reaffirmed in the agreement between Boris Yeltsin and Chancellor Kohl of 21 November 1991 and again in the cultural agreement of 16 November1992.

Despite this, the director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Irina Antonova has come out vehemently against the return of works of art, of which many are in her museum. This is perhaps not surprising as Mrs Antonova is in her mid seventies and lived through the horrors of World War II. On the other hand, she has also always been part of the Communist system (she would not have been made director in the Sixties had this not been so), which she learnt to play astutely to the benefit of her museum.

In this article she refers to “sensational” and “malicious” accusations in the German press that the Russians were concealing works of art, but in fact she herself repeatedly lied about the presence of the Schliemann gold and Koenigs collection in her museum, even after the secret escaped from the bag in 1991. Where the Koenigs drawings are concerned, quiet diplomatic negotiations are going on at this moment between the Dutch authorities, who claim ownership of these drawings (with whom Mrs Antonova should have no quarrel as The Netherlands also suffered under Germans), and the Russian Foreign Office regarding their restitution.

Mrs Antonova’s article lays great emphasis on the fact that the restitution demands are all one-sided, and that the Germans are giving back nothing. In this she has singled out the aspect of Article 16 which makes it so difficult to implement: the Russians refer continually in negotiations to German war booty, while the Germans insist that they have none, ar least not in public collections. On 20 June the Russian Parliament discussed the issue and a majority was against the Gorbachev-Kohl agreement. What is becoming more and more apparent is that the Russians will not hand back the cultural property in their territory without hefty compensation, probably financial. And when that happens, Mrs Antonova will not want her museum to lose out. In the meanwhile she and the Russian nationalists are in agreement over the question of restitution.