Recent developments in restitution claims in Russia prove that some art theft is 'legitimate'; when it is committed by a government that is recognised by nations around the world

Unlike the heirs of Nazi victims, the descendants of collectors whose art was appropriated by the Bolsheviks are unlikely to have it returned


St Petersburg

Works of art taken by the Nazis from Russian collections have been slowly trickling back to Russia over the last few years. While the Russian government eagerly celebrates each restitution of Nazi-looted art as a triumph, it has been less willing to address the issue of restitution for works that were seized from private Russian collections by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The Bolsheviks nationalised art from thousands of collections throughout Russia. Most of the works they seized are now in the collections of Russian museums. Yet there have been only a small number of claims for restitution by the heirs of the collectors whose art was appropriated. Because these confiscations still have the force of law in Russia, descendants of the victims of Bolshevik theft are not likely to have their cases heard in national courts.

Since the 1920s, these victims and their heirs have occasionally filed lawsuits outside Russia when the works that had been seized from them or their family turned up on the market. Most claimants have been unsuccessful.

One of the first cases unfolded in London in 1929 when Princess Olga Paley sued an art dealer identified in documents as Weisz. In 1928 Weisz had purchased from the Soviet government works previously belonging to the princess.

A British court ruled that since the sale took place in the Soviet Union, a government recognised by Britain, the transaction had to be considered legitimate, a legal principle known as an Act of State Doctrine.

This principle has also scuppered the claims of Russian emigrés living in the US. “The effect of this doctrine is that the US enforces and recognises public acts of foreign governments even if those same acts would be invalid or unacceptable in the US,” says Sharon Flescher, Executive Director of the International Foundation on Art Research.

“Allied declarations during and after WWII invalidated Nazi property transactions. This, alone, is a significant difference. We never invalidated the Russian actions.”

The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg today incorporates in its permanent collection works of art from the collections of dozens of individuals including, Sergei Shchukin (see below) and Ivan Morozov, two of the greatest collectors in pre-Revolutionary Russia. However, the institution’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, like his colleagues throughout the Russian museum world, does not believe the issue needs to be addressed.

“There is nothing to be embarrassed about,” says Dr Piotrovsky. “The nationalisations are a fact of history and this was the decision made by the government at the time and it happened in other countries that had revolutions, such as France.”

After the restoration of the French monarchy, however, Louis XVIII paid out Ffr1 billion to compensate those who had had their property confiscated to avoid any possible disputes between the pre-Revolutionary owners who had been forced to leave France because of the Revolution, and those who were living on their property after the Restoration.

The Art Newspaper has spoken to some descendants of collectors whose art was appropriated by the Bolsheviks. Most express an interest in compensation, but say they have no firm plans to pursue their claims.

At the opening of the current exhibition at the Hermitage, “The Stroganovs: patrons and collectors” (until 25 January), The Art Newspaper spoke to Baroness Helene de Ludinghausen (Stroganova), a descendant of the Stroganov family whose collection includes over 350 works of art such as paintings by Botticelli and Van Dyck, Etruscan and Greek vases, 17th-century Chinese vases, French 19th-century sculpture and Russian 19th-century art. The collection was appropriated by the Bolsheviks and is now in the collections of the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, the Russian Academy of Art, the Pavlovsk Museum, and the State Russian Historical Archive.

Having visited the exhibition, Baroness de Ludinghausen, whose Stroganov Foundation is a beneficiary of the revenue raised by the show, told The Art Newspaper, “I’m not asking for anything back, but having seen everything my family used to own, I wouldn’t be against the idea, if offered.”

Other descendants have expressed similar sentiments. In 2001 Yelena Yakovleva, an art historian at the State Russian Museum, completed a five-year investigation tracking down the private collection of Arkady Roumanoff, chief editor of the popular tsarist-era newspaper, Russkoye Slovo in St Petersburg.

After the revolution, Roumanoff’s art collection which included works by leading Russian painters of the early 20th century, was sent to the Russian Museum where a precise inventory was made. Over the next several decades the works were dispersed throughout the Soviet Union. Ms Yakovleva tracked the Roumanoff collection to 25 museums in four countries of the former Soviet Union.

Today, the Roumanoff family lives in France and would like some form of compensation from the Russian government. “I think the best thing they could do would be to let me visit the museums for free, and put up a label stating that these works came from the collection of my father,” says Daniel Roumanoff, Arkady Roumanoff’s son. “Why not use the example of the French restoration to compensate, one way or another, the loss of the legitimate owners?”

Though the Russian Museum has not yet acknowledged pre-Revolutionary owners in its displays, other museums have. When Dr Piotrovsky became director of the Hermitage in 1992 the museum introduced a policy of identifying in labels and in guide books, from which nationalised collections works had been taken.

“Restitution is not an issue,” says Dr Piotrovsky. “The only pertinent issue before us is to commemorate the contribution made by previous owners.”

That, however, is not quite the end of the story. Over the last 10 years, the Russian government has returned to the Orthodox church most of its churches and many religious objects seized by the Bolsheviks.

The Russian government is evidently ready to return property and objects in some cases and not in others and some are now beginning to question why the law is not equal for all.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'When is theft not theft?'