Looted art

What future for the looted Krebs Collection?

Rumours of a Sotheby’s valuation have encouraged talk of auction


Might the exhibitions recently announced in the international press, of the looted works of art from World War II, now held in storage in Russian museums, be a sort of international promotion for an eventual sale? Such is the rumour currently circulating about a possible auction by the Russian State.

It revolves around talk of a recent visit made to the museums’ stores by experts from Sotheby’s, apparently without ministerial authorisation. The three page document drawn up on that occasion refers in particular to the collection of industrialist Otto Krebs, stolen from Holzdorf, near Weimar.

At his death in 1941, Krebs’s collection of ninety-eight pictures, including works by Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Signac, Gauguin, Derain, Matisse and other artists, were stored in the cellar of his country house in the zone controlled by the Red Army.

It is said that there was a verbal agreement between the Russian commander, General Vasil Ciuykov, and the then director of the Kunstsammlungen in Weimar, for the works to be transferred to that museum; but in 1949, when the military left the area, there was no trace of the collection. The Russian Deputy Minister of Culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, confirming the Russians’ intention to exhibit the “hidden treasures” in the near future, including Priam’s treasure in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, denied that Russia intended to give back the war booty, and resolutely denied the rumours of a possible sale. An identical denial was issued by the Kunstsammlungen in Weimar: the Sotheby’s list is nothing but a simple valuation of Krebs’s collection. “There would be extremely complex legal repercussions which would be impossible to overcome”, declared the deputy director of the German museum, Mr Sfoehl. “As far as we are concerned, we hope for full restitution. We know of the existence of the Sotheby’s list, but not what it includes.” Sotheby’s in the meanwhile told The Art Newspaper that it had neither seen nor valued the Krebs paintings.

A further mystery surrounds the “White House at Night” by Van Gogh, one of the most celebrated paintings in the collection, worth around $25 million. During a visit made to the stores at the Hermitage by German museum directors in November 1993, the picture appeared remarkably fresh, as if it had recently been painted (see The Art Newspaper, No. 38, May 1994, p. 4). There has been no confirmation thereafter of the status of “White House at Night”, which appeared on the Western art market only three weeks after the museum directors’ visit.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'What future for the Krebs Collection?'