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Books: Stalin’s supermuseum

As the Red Army pushed back the Nazi invaders in 1944, a pair of Soviet art historians compiled a list of masterpieces from Europe’s museums to be brought back to Moscow

In a gripping book to be published later this month, two Moscow-based art historians give the first detailed account of how treasures from Nazi Germany were seized by the Red Army and hidden away for fifty years. The authors, Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Koslov, played a key role in tracking down the secret stores where the looted works of art have been stored. It is largely thanks to their investigations that the Russian authorities were eventually forced to acknowledge the existence of the war booty. This in turn has made it possible to mount a series of spectacular exhibitions of some of the finest works including the paintings now on show at the Hermitage and Pushkin museums and next year’s promised unveiling of the Trojan Gold.

Stolen Treasure (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) reveals how more than 2.5 million works of art were taken from Nazi Germany. At the time it was seen by the Soviet leaders as rightful compensation for the terrible destruction which their country had suffered at the hands of Hitler. This seizure of artworks, according to Mr Akinsha and Mr Koslov, represented “the most prodigious secret removal of looted cultural property in human history”.

Among the revelations of Stolen Treasure is the story of the proposed “supermuseum”, a museum of world art in Moscow. In scale it dwarfed even Hitler’s plans for a Führer Museum in Linz. Documents now in the State Archive of the Russian Federation reveal how the audacious idea developed. In January 1944, when the war was at its height, a meeting of leading Soviet architects was assembled to discuss the terrible damage that Nazi troops had inflicted on their historic buildings. These losses included the Tsarist residences outside Leningrad, as well as churches and palaces at Chernigov, Istra, Kalinin, Mozhaisk, Smolensk and Nereditsa.

Igor Grabar, a leading Soviet artist and architect, spoke passionately to the meeting about the destruction of the twelfth-century church of Nereditsa, on the outskirts of Novgorod. He initially suggested that the Soviet Union should take a Gothic cathedral from the West and transport it stone-by-stone to Nereditsa, where it would be re-erected. Admitting that this might prove impractical, he then came up with another idea. “We must be compensated by a few Sistine Madonnas”, he said. Grabar added that even several Raphaels might be insufficient compensation for the loss of the Nereditsa church, proposing that the ancient Pergamon Altar from the Berlin Museums Island would be more equitable compensation. The meeting concluded by agreeing to Grabar’s suggestion that the Soviet Union should seize works of art to compensate for war losses.

The idea of a supermuseum was primarily the dream of two men: Sergei Merkurov, director of the Pushkin and also a sculptor, and Mikhail Khrapchenko, head of the Arts Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars. In March 1944 they wrote to Molotov, second only to Stalin in the Soviet government, with their proposal. Three existing Moscow institutions should be amalgamated: the Pushkin, the Museum of New Western Art (housing the Shchukin and Morozov Impressionist paintings) and the Museum of Oriental Culture. This massive collection would then be augmented by the finest masterpieces seized from the museums of Nazi Germany and its allies.

A spectacular site for the supermuseum was proposed. Stalin had already made plans for a huge Palace of Soviets in Moscow which was to be crowned with a gigantic 260-foot high statue of Lenin. Merkurov, who had been commissioned to design the Lenin statue, came up with an ingenious idea: the supermuseum should be situated in the Palace of Soviets and linked with a 160-foot gallery which would connect it with the nearby Pushkin building.

Meanwhile Grabar set about deciding what should fill the supermuseum, a task he was given by the Extraordinary State Commission, set up by Stalin to record the extent of war damage inflicted by the Nazi forces. Grabar commissioned a group of experts to compile a list of the greatest masterpieces of European art, which would be seized as compensation. His team scoured the catalogues of the major European museums, selecting the masterpieces for Moscow.

From Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum they chose thirty-five paintings and from the National Gallery in Budapest a further fifty-two works. Romania had little to offer, so eventually they settled for just a single picture, the king’s El Greco of “The Adoration of the Magi”. Italy posed a problem. Its museums were filled with suitable masterpieces, but following Mussolini’s fall from power in 1943 it was unclear whether the Soviets would have the opportunity to confiscate Italian treasures. Despite this concern, Grabar’s initial list included works from Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. German museums were to be the richest source of pickings. Altogether 179 paintings were selected from Berlin’s Kaiser Friedrich Museum, 125 from Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, twenty-five from the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig, dozens from Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie, and smaller numbers from Augsburg, Brunswick, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Karslruhe, Kassel, Oldenberg, Potsdam and Würzburg.

The final list which Grabar submitted to the Central Committee on 26 February 1945 included 1,745 masterpieces. In addition to paintings, drawings and sculpture, the inventory of desiderata included many of Europe’s greatest antiquities and the finest pieces of decorative art. Everything had been carefully valued in US dollars. For example, a figure of $2 million was put on Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”. In the final inventory, values ranged from $7.5 million for the Pergamon Altar to $200 for an ancient Egyptian knife, and altogether it totalled $70,587,200. Grabar’s list arrived at the Central Committee at an opportune time. The Red Army had launched its final push toward Berlin and within a few weeks the Nazi regime would capitulate.

Works of art were then shipped back to the Soviet Union by the train-load. On 22 August 1945 the masterpieces from Dresden, including the “Sistine Madonna”, arrived in Moscow. Another arrival was the Pergamon Altar, part of which was initially stored outdoors at the Pushkin.

Many of the masterpieces on Grabar’s list were seized by the Red Army, particularly works in Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. Others lay beyond the control of the Red Army, in museums in Italy and the zones of Germany occupied by American, British and French troops. The Soviet Ministry of Culture later calculated that a grand total of 2,614,874 trophy artworks were taken at the end of the war. But despite earlier plans, the works were neither dispersed to the cities which had suffered the worst destructions nor concentrated in a supermuseum of world art (indeed Stalin’s Palace of Soviets was never built). Instead the loot was simply locked away and its very existence denied.

The story of how the secret stores were revealed goes back to September 1987. Mr Koslov, then a Pushkin curator, was visiting the Ministry of Culture when an official he knew asked for help in carrying some bundles of old papers that were being discarded. The two men went downstairs to the basement, where there was a shredder. On the dusty floor, Mr Koslov’s eye spotted a document headed “Restitution” and on picking it up he realised that it was from a file on Dresden’s art treasures. Searching through the papers he found the minutes of the Soviet-East German negotiations for the return of the Dresden paintings in 1955. Mr Koslov then came across a list entitled “The Most Important Works of Art kept in the Special Depository of the Pushkin Museum”. Finally he discovered a document headed “Unique objects from the Large Trojan Treasure, Berlin”, dated 28 March 1957 and signed by the Pushkin’s chief curator Nora Eliasberg. This was the first evidence that Priam’s gold had not been destroyed in Berlin, as was assumed, but lay hidden in the vaults of the Pushkin.

Mr Koslov salvaged the papers from the Ministry of Culture basement and the following day he called Mr Akinsha, an art historian friend from their student days. Together they began to research the fate of the lost war booty, discovering to their surprise that considerable documentation was in the archives of Moscow. These papers were often filed haphazardly, which explained why they had been ignored. For example, important documents on the Trojan Treasure were scattered in files that contained lists of furniture bought for provincial libraries.

In 1991 Mr Koslov and Mr Akinsha started to publish their research in the New York magazine ArtNews and assisted other journalists (including, on occasion, myself). Their revelations were soon picked up from the foreign press by Isvestia, much to the anger of Mr Koslov’s boss, Pushkin director Irina Antonova. She then summoned her curator for a dressing-down. “You are young and inexperienced, you didn’t see Peterhof burned down, but I saw it”, she told Mr Koslov. Antonova, as a young assistant at the Pushkin, had in 1945 also helped unload art treasures from Germany, and it was she who signed the receipt for the Trojan Treasure. A few weeks after Antonova’s scolding, Mr Koslov had an unannounced visit from three KGB officers, who showered him with meaningless questions in a crude attempt at intimidation.

The KGB visitors failed to deter Mr Koslov and Mr Akinsha, who went on to discover where Antonova’s greatest secret was stored. The fabulous Trojan Gold lay behind what they called “Pinocchio’s Door”. In the Russian version of Pinocchio, a magic door hidden behind a painting leads to an enchanted paradise. At the Pushkin, in a private room used by tour guides, there was an iron door masked by a curtain. Through this securely locked door was the first room, housing the documentation dealing with the trophy art. Beyond this was another locked door leading to a second room, its walls surrounded by safes containing the most precious objects, including the Trojan Treasure and gold antiquities from Cottbus, Eberswalde and Dreisen. It was only late last year that the conservators were allowed through “Pinocchio’s Door” to move the Schliemann’s treasure to the museum’s archaeology laboratory, prior to its planned display next January.

Another of the successes of Mr Koslov and Mr Akinsha was to track down the lost masterpieces of the Bremen Kunsthalle. They met Viktor Baldin, who as a young Red Army officer in 1945 had found 364 Old Master drawings abandoned in the cellar of a mansion northwest of Berlin where they had been hidden for safekeeping in the war. Baldin took the drawings back to Russia and then presented them to the Shchusev Museum of Architecture. He later wanted to see them returned to Bremen, but his wishes were thwarted by Soviet officialdom. Mr Akinsha and Mr Koslov claim that in 1990 Boris Yeltsin agreed to hand back the drawings to Germany, but was overruled by his own Minister of Culture Nikolai Gubenko. The drawings which Baldin saved are now at the Hermitage, with negotiations over their eventual fate still deadlocked.

Mr Akinsha and Mr Koslov claim that the former Soviet Union still has over one million trophy works. In 1955 Dresden’s masterpieces were sent back and several years later a very large quantity of other works (including the Pergamon Altar) was quietly handed over to East Germany, then a Soviet ally. But the rest of the loot remains behind in the trophy stores. Stolen Treasure reveals that the main depository is the Zagorsk Monastery, forty miles north of Moscow.

The Pushkin still has more than 200,000 objects in its own stores, including the Koenigs drawings from Rotterdam (which are kept in a mansion adjoining the main building). Moscow’s Historical Museum has coin and medal collections seized in Germany. The Hermitage still has thousands of trophy works. In Kiev, the Museum of Western and Oriental Art holds the graphics collection of the Berlin Art Academy and prints from the Dresden Gemäldegalerie. Dozens of official dachas are decorated with secondary objects. In the sanatorium of the Academy of Sciences in the Moscow suburb of Uzkoe, for example, there are a dozen paintings from the museums of Potsdam and Charlottenburg.

Mr Akinsha and Mr Koslov should be congratulated for what is one of the most important pieces of investigative journalism undertaken in the art world in recent years. It is an additional tribute to their courage and persistence that their story was pursued in what has been a closed society. The basic tools of research were in short supply, such as an efficient telephone service and photocopy machines (the authors mention that the Pushkin did not have a single photocopier in 1987). The fate of trophy artworks has also been a subject in which the KGB has always had a close interest and when the authors began their research they were taking a personal risk.

As the fate of the war booty is now debated in the political arena, there could even be a revival of an old Stalinist dream. Valery Koulichov, head of the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Restitution, recently told the authors of Stolen Treasure what he though would be the best solution: a special museum should be established in Moscow to house all the trophy art.

o Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Koslov, Stolen Treasure: the Hunt for the World’s Lost Masterpieces (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1995) 288 pp. 30 b/w ills ISBN 0 297 81428 1 £20, to be published 12 June

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 49 June 1995