Moscow's Pushkin Museum Displays Looted Medieval Treasure

Bloomberg 20 March 2007
John Varoli

The Russian and German culture ministries have mounted an exhibition at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts devoted to European medieval gold, silver and bronze works not seen in public since 1939.

``Era of the Merovingians: Europe Without Borders,'' which also aims to heal the wounds of World War II, features almost 1,300 items dating from the end of the 4th century to the 8th century. The works come from the Pushkin Museum, the State Historical Museum in Moscow, the State Hermitage Museum, and Berlin's Museum fuer Vor- und Fruehgeschichte (Museum for Pre- and Early History).

While the show focuses on the art of the Merovingians, the first significant royal house in Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire, it includes artworks from most cultures inhabiting Europe, such as the Romans, Franks, Slavs, Balts, Huns, Goths and Lombards.

``This exhibition is a tremendous event because of the great number of high quality early medieval artworks gathered in one spot,'' said Vladimir Tolstikov, the chief curator and head of the Pushkin Museum's Ancient Art and Archaeology Department. ``Many of the works show how the Merovingians and other barbaric tribes continued the Roman art tradition.''

Soviet Looters

About half of the exhibits entered Russian state collections at the end of World War II when Soviet troops looted them from Berlin's Museum fuer Vor- und Fruehgeschichte. Since 1945, the works have been held in vaults in the Pushkin Museum, the State Historical Museum, and the Hermitage. Germany wants the works returned. Russia has said it won't do so.

``The exhibition is also a breakthrough in Russian-German relations because we were able to put aside our political differences and focus on scholarly work to show these works for the first time since 1939,'' said Tolstikov.

At the end of the war, occupying Soviet forces systematically looted Germany, claiming everything from museum collections to entire factories as reparations for their own losses during the Nazi invasion.

Besides the estimated 20 million Soviet citizens killed in World War II, Nazi troops looted cultural sites and museums.

From 1956 to 1958, the Soviet Union returned about 1.3 million items to East Germany including artworks, archive files and library collections, said Tolstikov. Another 350,000 pieces are still in Russian museums and archives, he said.

A 1998 Russian law forbids the return of trophy art to Germany and its allies, with exceptions for works that can be proved to have been owned by Nazi victims, for instance Jewish families. Many looted items in Russian museums, however, remain unstudied and access is limited.

`Trophy Art'

``The Nazis committed tremendous and deplorable destruction in the name of Germany, but international law doesn't accept taking artworks as a form of compensation,'' said Dietrich Schulenburg, spokesman for the German Culture Ministry. ``While German policy is to be constructive, international and bilateral agreements between Russia and Germany call for the return of trophy art which is German property.''

In 1990, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Treaty of Friendship, which called for the return of all looted artworks found on the territory of both countries. Russia is the legal successor to the Soviet Union and bound by all agreements that country signed.

Medieval Fashion

Among the more precious works in the show are a 6th-century gold pendant with almandine stones, and ornate gold latches used to button the clothing of local elites of the Germanic tribes that invaded the Roman Empire after the 4th century.

Some of the items, however, testify to the complex relations between Rome and the invading Germanic tribes. Five thick golden grivna, early medieval status symbols, were once worn around the neck of Germanic tribal leaders who served Rome and protected the empire from other invading Germanic tribes.

``This exhibition has the latest archaeological discoveries and proves that all these different nations had close and complex relations,'' said Tolstikov.

``Era of the Merovingians: Europe Without Borders'' is at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, through May 13.

(John Varoli writes about the arts for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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