Official Soviet circles consider the return to the West of World War II art treasures

Glasnost has unveiled the ill kept secret of thousands of works of art, of archives and libraries taken to the USSR

An account of the Soviet policy for the removal of works of art from the occupied Germany at the end of the war has been published in this month’s ARTnews. It is not such a revelation as a sensationalist press has made it out to be. It has always been known that, in compensation for the damage inflicted on their country during the war (the Extraordinary Commission to Investigate Nazi crimes in the Soviet Union calculated that the Germans had removed, destroyed or damaged 564,723 museum items), the victorious Soviets had taken with them large quantities of works of art from the occupied territories, notably all the major treasures in the collections of East Germany, returned for the greater part in 1956. Since then there have been many rumours—and sightings—of missing works of art. Back in 1959 the biographer of Schliemann, Robert Payne, wrote that the great gold treasure found by the German archaeologist in 1873 at Troy had been taken from the Berlin Museum of Early History and sent to Russia. What gives credibility to the statement by the ARTnews piece that the Schliemann treasure is indeed in the U.S.S.R. is that, although it is not revealed exactly where it is, mention is made in the same context of the Eberswald treasure (eighty-one gold items dating from 800 BC), and the Holm silver of the eleventh century BC, excavated in what is now West Poland in 1908. Since there has been no public fuss made about the Eberswald treasure up till now, one can assume that the authors of the ARTnews article Konstantin Akinsha and Grigory Kozlov do indeed have insider information.

A sighting remarkable for the openness or naiveté of the Soviet museum curators concerned was recounted to The Art Newspaper by Claude Blair, the noted arms and armour expert and former Keeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In 1966, while attending a congress in Moscow for scholars of arms, he and other eminent specialists were shown into the stores of the State Historical Museum on Red Square. They were astonished to see a large collection of outstanding Western European arms and armour, including pieces which they immediately recognised as being from the Zeughaus in Berlin and from the Musée de l’Armée in Paris. The latter must have arrived in Moscow via the Zeughaus, as that was one of the places where the Nazis lodged the pieces they had identified in the Musée as having been removed from Austria and Germany by Napoleon and which they “repatriated”. Mr Blair says that, so far he knows, those pieces are still there. He hopes that the famous armour collection of the Wartburg, Eisenach, will now surface, last having been seen in a dance hall at the end of the war.

The opening up of the Soviet Union in the last few years has meant that these ill kept secrets have begun to be discussed much more openly. Last year the former director of the Shchusev Museum in Moscow, Viktor Baldin, revealed in Pravda that he had personally brought back Old Master drawings from the Bremen Kunsthalle collections. Three hundred and sixty-three of these are now in the Museum of Russian Architecture in Donskoi. The spy and journalist Viktor Louis turned up in 1987 in London, trying to sell a drawing of a boy by Ambrosius Holbein from the Koenigs collection, formerly in the Boymans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam. This collection of drawings came to the Soviet Union, like the Musée de l’Armée pieces, via East Germany. It had been stolen by the Nazis and stored at Schloss Pillnitz outside Berlin. The whereabouts of the rest of the 491 drawings still missing has not been officially admitted, but it is almost certainly the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

There are numerous signs that Soviet authorities are considering a liberalisation of policy so far as these spoils of war are concerned. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, they had begun to negotiate the return of the Lübeck archives, effected in 1990. Gorbachev himself decreed that the Koenigs Holbein should be given back to the Boymans van Beuningen. According to a careful article in The Independent last month, there is a commission sitting at the moment to discuss the matter of restitution and it may be ready to make a public pronouncement some time this month. A first step would be to admit officially that this cultural property is in fact held in the country.

A man who has been a catalyst in recent developments, by the articles he has written over the last three years in favour of resolving this issue, is Alexei Rastorguyev, Assistant Professor of Art History at Moscow State University. Between 1988 and 1990 his pleas that the matter be brought out into the open were published under a pseudonym in the Paris journal Russkaya Misl (La Pensée russe). Now he no longer feels that he needs to conceal his identity and he is engaged in the unaccustomed activity of lobbying openly. Apparently there is a split between officials who believe that the war trophies should be returned, and the hardliners, of which the Culture Minister, Nikolai Gubenko is one, who want to keep them. There is also a possibility, to which Mr Rastorguyev is opposed, that money will be exacted from the West in exchange for restitution. He believes that the trophy mentality belongs to the Cold War era and is now superseded. He also points out that if central government does not sort out a solution soon, it may well lose control of the many items which are stored in museums in the Republics, and he cites Kiev Ashkhabad, Odessa, Baku, Gorky, Kaluga and Perm. The Republics may soon wake up to the fact that works of art could be useful bargaining counters with the West. He believes that a certain number of works should be retained as reparation for war damage, but suggests that it be no more than ten per cent of the total. His motivation is to liberate this vast body of material for scholars, and for everybody’s enjoyment once again.

Archaeologists know where they would begin if the treasure most frequently cited in recent articles were to become available: with modern scientific techniques and discoveries they would be able to answer once and for all the question as to whether Schliemann’s “Treasure of Priam” is in fact old, or, as has been often suggested, a series of brilliant fakes by goldsmiths’ working in the archaeological style, popular precisely during the period when the finds were made.

Mr Rastorguyev’s proposals are as follows:

A commission to be set up

The aims of the commission should be the investigation of the special reserves and their return, with the retention of some of the more valuable works as legal confirmation of, and international recognition of compensation for, the removal of treasures from the U.S.S.R. The legal basis for the retention of part of the secret reserves, as already being the lawful property of the USSR, is The Hague Convention of 1954 for the protection of cultural property in the case of war (for a full text of this see The Art Newspaper, No. 6, March 1991, pp.10-11). According to this document, the destruction of cultural treasures by the aggressor grants the right of replacement of this property, at an equivalent value, from the state property of the country which inflicted the damage.

Criteria for the return and retention of cultural property

To return all Germany’s archive material, but with compulsory preliminary screening. Archive material, such as historical property of a national character, cannot go into the compensation fund: the archives of Cologne do not make up for the loss of the archives of Moghilev.

To return all German national art treasures of a unique nature (pictures, sculptures and drawings by German Masters).

To return all art collections, or parts of those collections, that were in third countries—Poland, Hungary, Holland and others—before the war, as well as those belonging to private persons, innocent of crimes against humanity, irrespective of the contents of such collections.

To retain all material of a non-unique nature (libraries, and decorative art, such as porcelain, bronzes and furniture) as being of a low value. The nature of these items often makes it impossible to identify to whom or to which German collection they belong. For the most part, libraries have already been incorporated into our systems and should be treated as compensation for the libraries lost in the Soviet territories occupied by Germany during the war.

To retain art, historical or manuscript treasures which, in the judgement of the commission, should be part of the compensation for works stolen or destroyed by the German invaders. Such compensation must be calculated after careful study of the losses from our museums, including those in Kiev, Minsk, Novgorod and Pskov. The compilation of a compensation list must start from the estimated value of the lost artifacts and their equivalent: thus, lost fifteenth-century icons from Novgorod should be compensated for with pictures by equivalent European Masters .

The potential benefits

The Soviet Union would generate colossal political capital.

Soviet stores and museums could be rid of immense unnecessary reserves of material which are overloading the system.

Taking into account the heavy losses suffered by our museums during the war, the country would receive, in compensation, the legal right to the possession of art treasures, the value of which must be measured in tens of millions of dollars at current prices.

The USSR could raise the question of the return of Soviet art treasures lost during World War II and illegally held by Germany or third countries. These include, for example, the Dürer drawings from Lvov, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York*, or icons from Novgorod and Pskov, stored in an ikon museum in Recklinghausen**, West Germany.

*The author is referring to the collection formed by Prince Heinrich Lubomirski (1770-1850) which was at Lvov (Lemberg), and which until the German defeat was part of Poland, now of the U.S.S.R. Mr Rastorguyev is wrong in thinking that the Soviets have any claim on the collection as it was brought out before the war and dispersed thereafter. Only two of the more than twenty drawings by Dürer are in the Lehmann collection at the Met. and the remainder are scattered internationally.

**Dr Haustein of the Recklinghausen museum denies that they hold any paintings removed illegally from the Soviet Union, whether before, during or after the war. They do indeed have icons from Novgorod, but these were acquired on the market in the West; the Soviet government sold many important icons for hard currency between the wars. The museum was asked to house the church treasure and vestments from Pskov which had been removed by the Germans during the war, but these were returned to the monastery in the 1970s.