Germany issues catalogue of missing art works in push for return of war booty

The Guardian 2 August 2007
Kate Connelly

German cultural institutions have issued a catalogue detailing thousands of objects of art that disappeared from Berlin at the end of the second world war, in the hope of pricking the conscience of governments to return them.

The detailed inventory, which one critic said read like a "book of mourning" for lost German artefacts, contains a staggering array of treasures, most of which are believed to have been seized by foreign soldiers in 1945. They include sculptures by Nicola Pisano, a delicate relief by Donatello, late Gothic Madonnas and an exquisite array of Baroque works rendered in stone and wood. Other star pieces include paintings by Botticelli and Van Dyck.

A total of 180,000 items disappeared from German collections and have never been recovered. According to cultural experts, they are being held in secret depots in Russia and Poland.

The catalogue concentrates on sculptures and has been compiled by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), a state-financed body aimed at conserving the cultural heritage of the former state of Prussia. It is one of a series of six publications that are to be distributed throughout the art world in the hope of triggering memories and prompting a return of some of the works.

The volume is documented proof of the extent to which the so-called "trophy art" issue has still to be resolved 62 years after the war, despite high-level negotiations.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, head of the SPK, said: "The catalogue should form the basis of political negotiations as well as reaching the attention of the Russian public."

The emotional store put on returns of looted art was illustrated this week with the unveiling to the public of an exquisite ivory figure from 1700, which was last seen on a train-load of art works heading for safekeeping in Kassel in March 1945. The 22cm (8.6in) high Baroque sculpture by Balthasar Permoser - which depicts Omphale and her slave and lover, Hercules, and illustrates how love makes us defenceless - turned up at Sotheby's in New York, via a collector in California, two years ago. Able to prove its provenance, Berlin's Museum of Decorative Arts is now celebrating its return.

The missing art has been a long-running issue of contention between Russia and Germany, and Poland and Germany for years. While government negotiations with both countries stagnated long ago, curators and art experts have maintained a close dialogue.

The results are mixed. German experts welcomed the recent opening in Moscow of an exhibition of Merovingian-era gold and silver art works looted from war-torn Berlin by Red Army soldiers.

But their calls for the eventual return of the treasures, which were last seen by the Berlin public in 1939, went down badly in Russia, where the artefacts are euphemistically referred to as "art stored in conditions of war".

Mr Lehmann has appealed to Russia to open the depots where he says works are being stored. But the Russian government, which declared in a 1999 law that it owned the looted works, has responded by proposing to draw up completely new inventories, which would make it impossible to prove the provenance of the treasures and probably block their return forever.,,2139718,00.html
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