Trophy art: looted Viennese Old Masters on sale in Moscow

The Art Newspaper 14 May 2004
Martin Bailey and Sophia Kishkovsky

The Art Newspaper can reveal that two paintings looted from Austria’s Academy of Fine Arts at the end of World War II have turned up, apparently for sale, in Moscow. The Dutch Old Masters are still lifes by Willem van Aelst (1660s) and Rachel Ruysch (1703). Both had been bequeathed to the Academy in 1822 and were among a group of pictures sent for safe-keeping during the war to Heiligenkreuz Abbey, 20 kilometres south of Vienna. The abbey served as a billet for Soviet troops in 1945 and the Ruysch and Van Aelst are assumed to have been looted by Red Army soldiers.

Nothing was known about the fate of the paintings until last year, when the Academy of Fine Arts director Renate Trnek received information that the Ruysch was in Moscow. On 14 July she visited the address she had been given at 11 Arbat Street, accompanied by Austrian government official Gottfried Toman. They then saw the Ruysch hanging in a gallery, apparently for sale. She says she was offered the painting for $500,000, compared with its open-market value of around $900,000. On explaining that it was out of the question for the cash-strapped Academy of Fine Arts to pay the sum for a picture which had been looted, negotiations broke down.

Further news emerged at the Maastricht fair, in March. The Viennese Galerie Sanct Lucas was approached by a visiting Russian dealer who said that he had two paintings for sale, the Ruysch and also the lost Van Aelst. The Russian openly admitted that both had once belonged to the Academy of Fine Arts. The Vienna gallery said that in the circumstances it was not interested in considering a purchase.

The Moscow gallery is run by Vadim Zadorozhny, who with his colleague Alexei Geller runs a shop named “A find on the Arbat.” Speaking last month to The Art Newspaper, he told us that the Ruysch is “not in our gallery, but we do have it in our field of vision.” He admitted that “there is a private collector who wants to sell the Ruysch”, but said he did not know anything about the Van Aelst.

Mr Zadorozhny then went on to explain his position on pictures lost during World War II: “we believe that works of art should not be kept underground, so our task is to show them. There are many works in Russia from the best European museums.” Referring to Ms Trnek’s visit, he said that, “We pushed the collector to sell, because we want art to be returned to museums in the West—and from the West to Russian museums.” When asked about the Vienna claim, he responded: “They think they have some rights—and we think we also do. As a result of World War II, works of art were taken from one side and ended up in the hands of the other.”

The Academy of Fine Arts could easily establish its ownership, since the paintings are recorded in its catalogue and have their inventory numbers on the reverse. The difficulty is that the Russian authorities currently regard the losses as “private looting”. Although the Russian government says it would not hinder the export of the pictures to Austria, it says the question of ownership needs to be resolved with the present owners. The current owners have not been identified, and although the Arbat gallery was once displaying the Ruysch, it suggests that it has been acting on behalf of an unidentified third party. The Ruysch case has some parallels with that of Rubens’s “Tarquin and Lucretia” .
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