Looking at the findings of the “Spoils of War” conference

The meeting produced revelations, but little hope that the return of looted art will be eased


The much-awaited conference, “The Spoils of War”, hosted in Manhattan in January by the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, was the first such event to be held in the United States. The conference confirmed two widely-held assumptions: that each convening of countries which lost cultural property during World War II points to a greater quantity of objects in Russia than had been expected, and that the actual return of objects from Russia grows more difficult despite the glare of publicity.

Since the conference brought together more people involved in restitution studies and policy than any previous gathering, the event earned the dubious nickname “the Woodstock of Restitution” from Konstantin Akinsha, the Ukrainian journalist whose article on the secret repositories helped open this issue to public discussion. Like Woodstock, the conference stirred up high expectations among its participants, most of which went unfulfilled. Like any gathering, it was a place to share opinions and information. The one conspicuous absence from the conference was Mikhail Piotrovski, Director of the Hermitage State Museum, who turned down an invitation to participate.

On the extent of war losses, new information came to light with the testimony of a delegate from Belarus, Adam Maldis, who had not spoken at previous gatherings in western Europe on restitution. Belarus had lost only 3% of its cultural property in the war, only 3% remained in Belarus after the conflict. Looting, both systematic and random, was extensive. In Minsk, thousands of paintings and other objects were removed from the city’s art museum, and sent by train to Königsberg. Some collections ended up in a Nazi depot in Bavaria, from which they have not been recovered. Nor have the objects sent East to Russia for safekeeping been returned. “After the war, all attempts to have these objects returned were not successful”, Maldis said. Today, although official restitution committees have been formed in Belarus, they have only minimal funding, and the government of Belarus is counting on private emigré groups to help trace missing objects.

As at any restitution meeting, delegates from throughout Europe updated the compilation of lists of missing works. This time, however, they also learned of new collections where these works might be found. According to Alexei Rastorguev, an art historian and professor at Moscow State University, thousands of items of war loot are now in private Russian collections. These range from the hordes of army officers to the purchases of Russia’s new rich. About 80% of today’s private (and largely illegal) art market in Russia consists of objects plundered during the war. To the great surprise of his audience, Professor Rastorguev showed slides of items in those collections which included works on paper from the Kupferstich-Kabinett of Dresden, among them a drawing of a staircase by Adolph Menzel. Professor Rastorguev warned that certain works that are not highly valued in the Russian market, notably nineteenth-century prints, are being neglected and damaged in Russian hands. He suggested that opening the market, now limited by customs restrictions, would boost art prices and encourage collectors to take better care of the works they hold.

The potential recovery of German private collections was addressed by Werner Schmidt, Director General of the Dresden State Art Collections. In the collectivisation of East Germany after the war, Soviet troops seized private collections and brought them to Russia. Some seizures were as late as 1949. For the most part, the works were not returned to the DDR in the late 1950s, when 1.5 million objects from German museums, in what had by then become East Germany, were sent back from Russia. (As a rule private property has not been sought by “victim countries” to any great extent in recent restitution efforts. The issue of unaccounted private French collections remains a sore point.) Germany has made the return of private collections now in Russia an issue in the ongoing negotiations with the Russians (see p.6).

The conference moved onto a higher note when Ambassador Hagen Graf Lambsdorff of the German Foreign Office took the floor to attack what he saw as Russian intransigence in the face of a reasonable German position. Germany had up to then provided Russia with some DM80 billion to help build democracy there, Lambsdorff argued, and the Russians were not repaying the Germans by negotiating in good faith, or even sharing information.

For the American audience which, for the most part, was witnessing these debates for the first time, the most dramatic revelation came on 20 January. During a slide presentation, the Russian restitution chief Valery Koulichov observed that the paintings he was showing came from the Herzog and Hatvany collections of Budapest, which had been taken by the Russians from that city’s bank vaults in 1945. Koulichov admitted that the works were being held in the Grabar Restoration Institute in Moscow (see The Art Newspaper, No. 44, January 95, p.20).

Other revelations included an announcement by an Austrian delegate that the monastery in Mauerbach which has held war loot for decades contains few objects of significant value. Dr Gerhard Sailer explained that proceeds from a forthcoming auction of those objects would be used to benefit victims of the Nazis.

Papers given at the conference are being prepared for publication by the Bard Center for Graduate Studies in the Decorative Arts, but a Bard spokesman said in early February that a publisher had still not been found. The publication is expected no sooner than early 1996, at which point the conference reports are likely to have been overtaken by events. In the meantime, Bard has requested participants not to make their contributions available to the press, a strategy that seems to clash with the spirit of open disclosure in which the “Spoils of War” conference was promoted.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The “Spoils of War” in Manhattan'