Twenty-five Hermitage “treasures” gained as war loot still unclaimed

Watercolours and drawings seized by the Red Army in a Berlin bunker in 1945 have been on show in the Hermitage earlier this year for the first time



The Hermitage admits that the original owners of many works in its current exhibition of “Treasures from pre-war German collections” are unknown. These “rediscovered” watercolours and drawings were seized by the Red Army in a Berlin bunker in 1945 and have been on show in the Hermitage earlier this year for the first time.

The uncertainty over the original owners only emerges after a careful reading of the catalogue. Although the entries on the eighty-nine works record the pre-war collectors, curator Tatiana Ilatovskaya admits in her introduction that there are doubts about twenty-five exhibits. Of these, all but one have never before been published or exhibited. In a positive move, the Hermitage is now seeking further information.

The informative catalogue published by Abrams (£35) records that three Nolde watercolours and eleven important drawings and gouaches by Archipenko “probably” once belonged to Otto Krebs, the celebrated German collector. But although the rest of the Krebs works in the Hermitage exhibition are marked on the reverse with the letter K and his inventory number, these inscriptions are absent on the Noldes and Archipenkos. These are also not recorded in the checklist compiled by the medical institute in Mannheim which received the Krebs collection after his death in 1941. Mrs Ilatovskaya points out that a still more persuasive reason for believing that they are from another collection is they “do not fit in with Krebs’s known artistic preferences”. which were Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

The St Petersburg exhibition also includes six watercolours by Rowlandson and four drawings by Menzel. The former owner noted in the Hermitage’s documentation is Helene Bechstein, Berlin. The reverses of the frames are inscribed “HB” with inventory numbers (such as 151-21644). Who Helene Bechstein was remains unknown.

The final mystery concerns a Cézanne copy of an écorché figure by the sculptor Houdon, drawn in brown chalk in the early 1890s. The Cézanne is last recorded in the 1935 sale of Paul Graupe in Berlin. Nothing is known of the collector who bought the drawing and lost it in the war.

If any of these works is identified by descendants of the pre-war owners, this could lead to legal claims. A claim has already been lodged by two descendants of Otto Gerstenberg, who once owned thirty-five works by Goya and eight by Daumier which are in the St Petersburg exhibition.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Twenty-five “treasures” in search of an owner'