Russia reneges on deal to return German art loot

The Sunday Times 6 March 2005
Mark Franchetii

WHEN the Russian government announced two years ago it would return a unique art collection smuggled out of Nazi Germany by a Soviet soldier, the decision was hailed as a sign of growing warmth between President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
But the celebrations have turned out to be premature.

Alexander Sokolov, the culture minister appointed by Putin less than a year ago, astounded the Germans last week by saying that the Baldin collection, which includes work by Van Gogh, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya and Dürer, would remain in Moscow.

The statement was made in defiance of a ruling by Russia’s constitutional court that the stolen art should be handed back.

“Sending the Baldin collection to Germany is out of the question,” Sokolov said. “It’s highly controversial and my predecessor’s decision to return it was premature.”

The 362 drawings and two paintings are valued at £30m. The collection takes its name from Viktor Baldin, a Soviet army captain and art restorer who found the works in the damp cellars of Schloss Karnzow, a castle north of Berlin. They had been moved there from a cultural centre in Bremen to protect them from the advancing Red Army.

Baldin, widely credited with saving the pictures, spent a frantic night in 1945 cutting them from their frames by candlelight and gathering other priceless drawings which fellow soldiers had hung in their tents.

He smuggled the collection back to Russia in a suitcase and kept it hidden for three years. It was then given to a Moscow architecture museum, where he was director.

“I was surprised by what I saw,” he said later of the moment he found the treasures. “All the masters of Europe from 14 countries. They had to be saved. But I also knew they had to be returned. This collection wasn’t mine; it belonged to the culture of humanity.”

Yulia Silakova, Baldin’s widow, said her husband, who died in 1997, would have been outraged by the Russian U-turn. She recalled how for decades he had petitioned the Kremlin to have the artwork returned to Bremen. She was all the more disappointed because only last September Sokolov had signed an agreement to let it go back.

“All these political games are unseemly,” she said. “The collection does not belong to us. Viktor saved it so that people could see it, not for it to be locked away in boxes.”
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