The point of no return - Europe climbs on the restitution bandwagon

But the process has stalled as far as large-scale restitution between Russia and Germany is concerned


Just at the moment when German discussions with the Russian government about the return of art seized during World War II have stalled, interest in the spoils of war has mushroomed. Countries throughout Europe have revived restitution committees that they had scrapped in the 1950s and 1960s, and are trying to conduct their own negotiations with Russia - with no more success than the Germans have had. Expanded press coverage of these issues may not have rallied public opinion yet (except in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics), but governments are feeling strong new pressures to bring their treasures home. Open borders have released a flood of World War II spoils onto the German black market and often the next stop is a gallery or auction house in New York. Some of these objects are already the focus of lawsuits in the United States. As inertia sets in diplomatically, a new element of intrigue has also entered the field. Adventurers and entrepreneurs are scrambling to locate and deliver treasures - to the market and to the media - with little regard for the law.

One outcome of this renewed interest is a profusion of information about the looting, destruction, transport and concealment of art. Along with that comes a new willingness to share it among the many nations that suffered losses of cultural property. Representatives of several of these victim countries (as they are now called) met in Chernigov, Ukraine, last September to discuss the recovery of losses. In Bremen, Germany, that discussion broadened at a conference on 2 December 1994 on restitution efforts sponsored by the German States, the Bremen Kunsthalle and the East European Institute of Bremen University. Another international conference, this time with a potent Russian delegation, is planned for late this month (see p. 20). What has emerged from these encounters so far is a more complete, detailed picture of the cultural damages of World War II and the transfers of property that followed. The return of this property, as a result, is more complicated than it was after the war, when many thousands of works of art and other objects were sent back to their owners. Thousands of objects remain uncounted and undocumented. Germany and Russia are by no means the only participants to determine who holds what and who is entitled to what. In some cases, private losses are more numerous than public ones. Changes of borders and governments have knotted up notions of ownership. Moreover, the same countries which endured years of looting and pillaging are also holding other countries' property.

The following is an abbreviated guide to efforts by some countries to identify and recover property lost during World War II. As all participants now acknowledge, the pool of information is expanding daily, but this outline points to the size of a European and a global dilemma.


Restitution efforts revived

Last year, Belgium reactivated its restitution activities in response to the opening up of Eastern Europe. The organisation responsible for recovering works of art and other cultural objects is the Office Belge de l'Economie et l'Agriculture (OBEA). Whereas this office deals largely with works of art, the initial phase of the recovery of Belgian assets, which began immediately after the liberation of Belgium, dealt with economic goods and German reparations. At that time the Belgians coordinated their search for Belgian works of art, libraries and archives, began documenting Belgian losses, sought contacts with private victims, and emptied depositories of art which the Germans had left behind in Belgium.

More than 3000 works of art and books were returned from Germany and Austria then, among them "The Mystic Lamb" by the brothers Van Eyck from Saint Bavo in Ghent and Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges.

In a second phase, which began in 1956, Belgium sought the release of more than 1500 additional works of art, mostly paintings, sculptures and tapestries. By 1964, when the search was concluded, not a single object that had been sought was returned. Today, the OBEA is reassembling lost archives on the Belgian war losses. According to director Jacques Lust, who is coordinating restitution activities, documents have been found that were never used after the war.

Since 1992, Belgian researchers who have visited Moscow have confirmed that military and political archives and other documents seized by the Nazis were taken to Moscow by the Red Army. The archives also contain thousands of dossiers from Masonic organisations and socialist groups. The OBEA has also published the first volume of a catalogue of works of art still missing from Belgian collections. Additional volumes are forthcoming. The Belgian documentation of its losses is computerised and plans are in place to coordinate the country's data-base with that of Holland and France.


Koenigs Collection comes first

The Dutch effort to recover the drawings of the Koenigs Collection has been a priority since late 1945, when it was already suspected that the drawings were in Moscow. They had been sold to the Nazis in 1940.

The announcement by the Russian Ministry of Culture in October 1992 that the Koenigs Collection had been found led to the signing of a Russian-Dutch protocol the following year to work on the Koenigs case. So far an inventory of 307 drawings has been made and the search for 184 drawings still missing (all by German artists) is planned. As of the end of 1994, the Russian State Commission for Restitution had not yet held a meeting on the Koenigs case, although deputy minister of culture Svidkol, who had originally predicted that the Koenigs drawings would go on view in the Pushkin Museum at the end of 1994 or the beginning of this year, has now postponed that exhibition until the end of the year.

Other Dutch efforts at restitution have had mixed success. In 1991, a Rubens oil sketch, "Perseus and Andromeda", once part of the collection of the Amsterdam banker Fritz Mannheimer, was recovered from a private collector in Austria who had brought it to a Vienna auction house. Since the drawing was sold to the Germans in 1941, its ownership passed to the Dutch State, which had banned all commercial dealings with the Nazis. It is now on loan to the Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen.

In 1993, an Austrian court rejected the Dutch State's claim to fifty-nine paintings kept in the monastery of Mauerbach near Vienna, where a cache of more than 1100 items taken by the Nazis from several countries during the war was deposited.

In 1988 a Koenigs drawing by Ambrosius Holbein was repatriated. It had been left at the British Museum the year before. In 1990, another Koenigs drawing, a Madonna by Hans Baldung Grien, was recovered from an American private collection.

Due to time constraints, works of art missing since the war cannot be located for private owners, according to the Rijksdienst Beeldende Kunst, which handles restitution activities. Private losses which were registered with Dutch authorities, however, were investigated immediately after the war.


Little hope for recovery of private losses

France is without a doubt the country of Western Europe with the greatest number of losses to remain unaccounted for after World War II. France's accommodation with the Nazis during the Vichy period kept the country's important museum collections largely intact (smaller museums were still far less fortunate than grander ones), but private collections in France entered German hands on a vast scale, either by seizure or sale. Those objects range from painting and sculpture to decorative arts and furniture. Most of the private losses were suffered by Jewish collectors, and many of those losses have not been documented systematically. The French government lost archives (described on the scale of "kilometres" or "truckloads" depending to whom one talks) as well as historical documents, weapons and military memorabilia.

Until recently, those materials were being returned by the Russians to France. The French also recovered a selection of military flags, seized by the Nazis from the Musée de l'Armée, and then taken by the Russians, and a section of the railroad carriage in which the World War I armistice and the French surrender to the Nazis in World War II had been signed. The Nazis had taken the carriage to Thuringia and dynamited it at the end of the war.

A recent exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay displayed paintings that had been returned. Not all the French have watched the exhibition admiringly. It is "a fairy tale that most of these collections were recuperated or came back after the war", argues the journalist Philippe Sprang, who is preparing a study on the fate of the Jewish collections during and after the Occupation. His views have been echoed by journalists for the weekly L'Express, who have called attention to the fact that many thousands of works that disappeared during the war are still probably abroad. The government is doing "the very minimum, just enough to avoid public criticism", its detractors charge. They also inquire why, if the government says that some 90,000 objects remain unrecovered, the Quai d'Orsay has assigned only two persons to that task. Independent researchers also complain that they have not been given access to archives in government hands which list private losses. The government responds simply that it is protecting the families' privacy. A legitimate enough standard, the researchers say, if the Foreign Ministry were to provide details which would begin to give a specific inventory of what is at present an undifferentiated mass of objects. The current official practice is not simply to edit out the name on a private file, but to put an entire file off limits.


"Givers and not takers"

Italy was the most active country in Europe in the area of restitution immediately after the war. But further activities of this nature have been dormant until recently, when the Italian government, through the international affairs department of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, has revived its quest for new information about Italy's war losses. In 1953, Italy signed an agreement with Germany to give back to Germany the Italian possessions of German cultural institutions in exchange for a German pledge to return all works of art taken away during World War II. According to Pier Benedetto Francese, the official now responsible for restitution activities, Italians believe that the first part of the 1953 agreement "has been entirely fulfilled" although the second part "has yet to be entirely fulfilled".

Reviving activities which had died out in the early 1970s, the Italians are reissuing a catalogue of nearly 2500 works of art, with photographs and descriptions, and "a suspected first destination out of Italy".

Virtually no records exist of the many works of art pillaged from private collections. And even in the case of some museums, inventory lists were totally destroyed. According to Mr Francese, Italian authorities are eager to share data on missing objects with other European countries.

The Italian role in this quest is complicated somewhat by its alliance at the time with Nazi Germany. Nazi officials made shopping trips to Italy, which were facilitated by Mussolini. One object currently being sought is a statue of Venus from Roman times, which Italian authorities shipped to Berlin after Goering, on a visit to Italy, "expressed admiration for the statue in a way that left no doubt as to what his intentions were".

Unlike their allies to the north, Mr Francese insists the Italians were not looters or pillagers, and therefore have no looted objects to exchange. "All records point to a subtraction of art from Italy", he announced patriotically, "we are always givers. We are never takers".

In particular, Francese says, the Italian government is looking for works of art that were looted when the Russians ransacked the Italian embassy in Berlin in 1945. The building burned eventually, but at least one painting is said to have turned up in a private collection.

In the meantime, Italian authorities are seeking to expand their data-base of art missing from World War II. Italian police hope to integrate that information into their current store of data on the vast numbers of works stolen in Italy today.


Red Army empties bank vaults

Like most countries, for years Hungary underestimated its cultural Losses from World War II. A catalogue, scheduled to appear in early 1995, estimates the number of Hungary's missing objects losses (paintings, sculptures, books and other items) at more than 10,000. The Hungarians suspect that many of that number are in Russian hands, either seized by Trophy Commissions after they were looted by the Nazis or taken by Soviet troops from bank vaults in Budapest after the fighting had ended. Russian looting of palaces and other private residences was also extensive, according to Miklos Mojser, who says that much of what was lost from private hands is documented. (Pre-war Hungarian laws required that ownership of "cultural objects" be declared to the State.) On this basis, Mojser explains, "we have a good idea what the Hungarians owned before the war and during the war". The fact that Hungarians stored their valuables in banks once war was declared helped ensure that systematic records were kept. The Hungarian National Bank was the largest of these depositories. Public collections lost far fewer works than private collections did.

From 1945 to 1948, before the communists took power, a State commission presided over the return of cultural property to Jewish owners. Most of those objects had been gathered at the Central Collecting Point in Munich. Works that had been missing from museums in Budapest were also returned at that time.

Some dozen paintings from several collections were returned inexplicably to Hungary from the Soviet Union in 1972, according to Hungarian officials. "We don't know why they came back, because it was handled absolutely secretly", Mojser explained. More recently, talks with the Russians have revealed that Hungarian paintings are now being stored at the Grabar Institute of Restoration in Moscow. Hungarians who visited that site were shown six paintings from various Hungarian private collections. They were informed that many more paintings that had been taken from Hungary are being held there.

Hungarian libraries are also in Russian hands, particularly in Nizhny Novgorod (formerly Gorki), although Hungarian officials have not seen these volumes. Books from the library of the Esterhazy family (seized in Austrian territory that belonged to Hungary until World War I) are now in the Central Moscow Library.

In 1991 and 1992, the Russians and the Hungarians signed agreements to identify, document and publish war losses, with the aim of returning property to the two respective countries. "That is a legal agreement", Mojser explained somewhat sceptically, "and at least the agreement is valid for us". Russia has asked for the return of Russian objects that ended up in Hungary after the war, but Hungary, Mojser points out, had no troops dispatched to seize cultural property. The only Russian items that Hungarian researchers have been able to locate within their border are a few icons of insignificant value.


Vast losses, few recoveries

To the extent that they can be measured, the Polish cultural losses in the war were vast. Museums and historic buildings were emptied, dismantled and burned. Ninety per cent of Warsaw's National Museum was carried off, along with millions of books and the bulk of the country's private collections. Germans looted the country of its valuables almost as rapidly as they conquered it. A show of 500 "saved" [sichergestellte] masterpieces from Polish collections went on display in Berlin in 1941. The Nazis also destroyed monuments and collections throughout the countryside. Soviet liberators carted off much of the little that remained after the Germans retreated, with special attention given to the cities of Breslau and Stettin, and the regions of Silesia and Pomerania.

The return of objects to Poland happened less quickly, but from 1945 to 1952 the former Allies did send many thousands of paintings, books and other objects back to Poland. Shipments from the Soviet Zone were far smaller (and far less complete) than those from the American and French Zones, according to Polish sources, but in 1956 the Soviets did return some 12,000 paintings, including Memling's "Last Judgment", to Polish churches and museums. Since then, Poland's efforts at restitution largely stopped. Not surprisingly, the country's alliance with the Soviet Union gave its art historians and museum specialists no special access to Soviet art storerooms.

In 1990 Poland created an office of the Commissioner for Polish Cultural Heritage Abroad within the Ministry of Culture to identify and recover missing objects. So far, however, no Polish officials have seen the depositories for Polish works in Russia. Moreover, the Poles are not dealing only with Russia on these issues. Poland seeks to recover paintings that remain in areas of the Ukraine that were formerly Eastern Poland (although Poland has urged that some works of art remain in the Lwow Museum, to preserve a Polish presence in a city which had historically been Polish). Hundreds of thousands of volumes from German libraries are also presently in Polish hands. In Bremen early last month, Professor Jan Pruszynski called Poland's possession of objects from Silesia "fully justified" given the circumstances of the war, a position which clashes with Germany's reading of international law on the restitution of cultural property.


Storerooms to open to the public

Cultural losses in Ukraine were like Poland's, only more extensive and more difficult to measure. As in Poland, the Nazis sought to obliterate the local cultures: Slavic and Jewish. Ukraine was also a terrain of fierce fighting between Russian and German troops, which took an additional toll on cultural sites. In the southern Ukraine, particularly in Odessa, Rumanian troops took part in the German invasion. It was the Rumanians who are largely responsible for the most devastating pillaging of that city. Many objects from that region were taken back to Rumania by a separate trophy-gathering service, complicating the documentation of losses.

Ukrainian sources report that only a few thousand objects out of 100,000 works in the Kharkov Historical Museum survived. The Kharkov Art Gallery and the Ukrainian Art Museum in Kiev suffered losses at a comparable level. Besides the usual range of looted objects - from Greek and Roman antiquities to Old Master paintings - in the Ukraine the Nazis focused particularly on archaeological sites.

According to Valentina Vrublevskaya, Soviet authorities exploited the problem of Ukrainian losses for propaganda purposes, but never conducted an inventory of damages. A National Commission on the Restitution of Cultural Treasures to Ukraine under the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine was established on 29 December 1992. Last autumn the Commission coordinated a seminar in the city of Chernigov under the aegis of UNESCO, the first organised meeting of its kind. Recovering Ukrainian losses poses special problems. Not only did the Germans and their allies seize treasures, but many objects were repatriated to the USSR from Germany by the Soviets and never returned to Ukrainian museums. Also, the Ukrainians are missing parts of collections that were shipped to Eastern regions of the USSR for protection. Not surprisingly, documentation is far from complete. The libraries and inventory lists of many museums were destroyed in the war. While German lists of seized property do exist, much of the German looting was random pillaging by individuals. The official number of objects lost is now estimated at 130,000, but Ukrainian officials admit that figure is revised upward "every day".

Ukraine is now offering to open its storerooms to show its holdings of objects bought back from Germany. Valentina Vrublevskaya has announced that an exhibition of objects from German museums, probably in Kiev, is planned, with a proposed parallel display in a German city of objects taken from Ukraine by the Nazis. But it is doubtful that enough Ukrainian objects are in Germany for such an exhibition.


Not least the Amber Room

Representatives from Greece, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Belarus, and the Baltic States did not take part at the recent Bremen conference, nor did any Russian representatives. The participation of Russian officials at the January conference in new York (see below) is likely to open the current impasse in restitution talks to public criticism. The Austrian presence at the same event could also lead to discussion of the status of some 1,100 works taken from Europe which remain in a monastery at Mauerbach.

As talks among the various victim countries proceed, so do efforts to recover missing objects. No search seems to have received greater attentions than the quest to find the legendary Amber Room which the Nazis dismantled and removed from the Catherine Palace outside St Petersburg. The room was reassembled and put on view in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). It was put in storage during the Allied bombings of 1944, and its location has been a matter of speculation since the end of the war. The KGB is said to have sponsored some eighteen expeditions in Russia to find the remains of the panelled chamber, even going so far as to engage psychics to lead its agents to the cache. Most recently, the Russians have contracted with Norman Scott, an American treasure hunter, to find the chamber. Last Summer, with Russian permission, Scott and a crew dug beneath the ground in Kaliningrad, photographing potential find sites with a fibre-optic camera. The search has been complicated by the great amount of unexploded ordinance in and around Kaliningrad. Reports of their findings vary, but Scott, reached by telephone last month at his office in Gainesville, Florida, stated that he was fairly sure that he had located the Amber Room in a bunker beneath the city. Excavations are due to resume in Kaliningrad on 15 April, Scott said. Scott's mission has been viewed with scepticism or amusement by those familiar with the Amber Room and the long search to recover it. Scott has financed the project by selling broadcast rights to various television companies.