Russia rules on restitution: “Art taken from occupied Germany belongs to Russia”

Constitutional court decides in favour of nationalists’ bill



At the end of July, the Russian Constitutional Court approved most of a bill which would prevent the return of any works of art taken after World War II from occupied Germany. These include Priam’s Treasure from Berlin and Old Master drawings from Bremen, both in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, and Impressionists from private collections, in the Hermitage, St Petersburg. The bill had been drafted by nationalists in the government who claimed that Russia had a right to keep the more than a million works they currently hold, in compensation for the destruction of Russia’s art and heritage during the war.

President Boris Yeltsin, however, wanted a pro-restitution compromise that would be more amenable to Germany, a major trading partner, so after his initial veto of the bill was over-ridden, he asked the Constitutional Court to review its validity. The court noted that certain parts of the bill violated Russian constitutional obligations, failing to distinguish between art that belonged to Nazi Germany and works looted by the Nazis from other individuals, whose claims must be considered separately. Poland, Hungary and Holland, can, therefore, hold out hope to recover works lost under those circumstances. The court’s decision also left a small loophole for further negotiations, allowing “exchanges of items of equal value” and the return of individual items as a goodwill gesture. The bill now returns to the legislature for revision.

Shortly before the court’s verdict, in a timely gesture, Russian art experts released the first three volumes of the catalogue listing works of art lost or stolen during the war. Compiled by the Russian Culture Ministry, Federal Archive Service and State Commission for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, the books list treasures taken from cultural institutions in and around St Petersburg, such as the State Russian Museum which lost over 2,000 items, as well as in Moscow.

Work only began work on the catalogues in 1992, and they are an impressive documentation of destruction and pillage by the Germans: altogether, 30,000 works are thought to have been destroyed, and 9000 are missing. A significant number of the missing works may, however, have been lost by the Russians themselves in the chaos during and after the war. Nikolai Nikandrov, an official at the Russian Culture Ministry, said, “[Russian] treasures returning from Bavaria were divided like this: eight train cars went to Kiev, four to Tsarskoye Selo, four to Novgorod, and two to Minsk. Of course, not everything that Ukraine received had belonged to Kiev museums before the war.” The catalogue has a print run of 1,000 copies, of which half are in English. The Russian Foreign Ministry plans to distribute them in the West. Future volumes will contain information on lost art treasures from cities such as Novgorod, Pskov, Smolensk, and Tver.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as “Art taken from occupied Germany belongs to Russia”