Germany Worried About Losing Out in Looted Art Row

Deutsche Welle 16 August 2007

Germany has been trying for years to repatriate art looted by the Soviets during World War II. Its museums are now worried that a new directive from Russia's culture ministry will make it tougher to track down the works.

Tucked away in the secret vaults of Russian museums are a number of priceless works of art that Germany says belong to it. The country's museum directors believe that about 180,000 works taken from collections in Berlin are in Russia and Poland.

The Hague Convention regulating wars on land requires art treasures seized by occupying forces to be returned. But Germany has had limited success in regaining such trophy art, and museum directors fear Russia may be making it even more difficult since the country's culture ministry purportedly issued a directive that calls for the creation of new inventory lists of everything that's been stored in secret depots so far.

"The Russian government is rewriting inventories because it wants to incorporate these items permanently in its own collections," said Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. He said it would make it much harder to track works that were once looted from Germany.

But contradictory reports have been commonplace in the decades-long dispute over art looted by the Soviets during World War II.

Russian officials say they have dealt with the issue with transparency. Moscow Historical Museum's deputy director, Vadim Leonidovitsch Yegorov, denied the existence of a directive to rewrite Russia's inventories.

"I think negative people have thought it up so they can present Russian researchers and museum people as greedy and miserly and not only restricting access to their own, but also to other people's treasures," he said.

Spoils of war?

In 1990, Germany and the Soviet Union expressly committed themselves to returning art objects that had been looted during the war. But just a few years later, the Russian government declared that artworks taken from Germany were Russian property.

"We can't give them back to Germany," said Yegorov. "Because back then Germany didn't respect Russia and Russian art treasures; it treated them barbarically."

One of the main bones of contention is the Baldin Collection. Bremen's city art museum has demanded the return of the works by Dürer, Rembrandt and van Gogh. Germany cites international law as well as the German-Soviet agreement.

But the Russians have remained intransigent on the issue. "We are keeping it as part of a world cultural heritage that should be accessible to all, to researchers from all countries and the entire world," Yegorov said.

Barrier to cooperation

Germany, however, refuses to accept that position. And the dispute over looted art has become a hindrance to working with Russian institutions, said Lehmann of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

"We are simply interested in cooperating with the Russians in matters of art and culture, and this unresolved issue of looted art always gets in the way," he said.

Still, Russian and German institutions have managed to work together on some research and exhibitions. German museums regarded as a milestone this spring's joint German-Russian Merovingian exhibition shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg which displayed objects art experts had considered lost.

Meanwhile, the Germans have demanded Russia finally open its secret depots. Berlin's museums have been drawing up new lists of lost artworks -- partly in the hope that colleagues who gain access to the Russian depots can pass on information. And their efforts have already borne fruit, according to Berlin's Museum of Decorative Arts.

"The catalogue of losses to the sculpture collection was only published a few weeks ago, and, despite everything, we have already been able to identify one of the objects in one of the Russian depots in Moscow," the museum's deputy director, Lothar Lambacher, said.


But the real issue is getting negotiations over the return of looted art back on track. Berlin's museum directors have received some backing from political quarters in calling for Germany to stand up for its rights vis-a-vis the Russian museums and government.

"For a while, the Russian government seemed quite willing to discuss returning the works," said Steffen Reiche, a member of the German parliament's culture commission." Then the Russian parliament, the Duma, put a stop to that. And so here the German parliament should take a stance that is just as clear as the Russian parliament's position."

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