Silver shadows

The St Petersburg Times 18 March 2005
Galina Stolyarova

Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov's suggestion that Russia may hand the silver that belonged to the German Prince of Anhalt over to Germany provoked a storm of protests from the State Hermitage Museum, where the collection has been put on public display this week.
The fate of the splendid collection of 18 items remains unclear as debate rages around the case.

Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky sounded a warning about setting a dangerous precedent. As Piotrovsky pointed out, a substantial number of treasures currently in Russia's leading museums were confiscated at various points in history.

The Hermitage received the Anhalt collection in 1951 directly from state storage. Russian officials say it was taken to Russia during World War II without documentation of its confiscation. The Prince of Anhalt was imprisoned in both Nazi and Soviet death camps during the course of the war.

"The return of the Anhalt collection is not a restitution in the usual sense," Sokolov said. "The Prince of Anhalt was an anti-fascist who participated in rescue of Soviet prisoners of war. This noble man, in all senses, was rehabilitated after his death by the Prosecutor's Office, and the return of the collection to his heir is purely what our legislation stipulates."

But Piotrovsky argues it is the State Duma that should decide the fate of the collection.

"We have a lot of people who had suffered from confiscation," Piotrovsky said. "We should think twice before we make a decision because we could set a risky precedent."

Heirs of art collectors such as Sergei Shchukin, whose collection of 19th and 20th-century Western European masters is now one of the highlights of the Hermitage's collection, would demand that family heirlooms be returned, he suggested.

In 1997, the Duma passed a law that prohibited the return of artworks expropriated by the Soviet state. This move created a legislative obstacle for handing back a large number of German art treasures still in Russia. But the 1997 law did not apply to private individuals, which makes room for the possible return of private collections.

In the case of the Anhalt collection, however, this exemption of law is no help, Piotrovsky said.

"The Anhalt silver came from state storage," Piotrovsky said. "The General Prosecutor's office, which investigated the case, found no documents on confiscation of these items. Their findings provide no legal grounds for the return of these artworks to the Anhalt prince's heirs."

The lingering problem of looted art has been a source of continuing tension in German-Russian relations for years.

Earlier this month, the German Press Agency quoted German Culture Minister Christina Weiss as saying that the silver collection of the Anhalt family will be returned before or during the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in May. The move would be made as a goodwill gesture, she said.

Piotrovsky is convinced that the return of the Anhalt collection could be made possible only in an exceptional case, and that this fact must be recognized by all sides involved, including the German authorities.

In an interview with local Channel 5 television, Piotrovsky said previous returns of "looted treasures" to Germany hadn't been appreciated enough.

"Not only did it not get a polite reception ,but there wasn't even a full understanding of the fact that it was an exceptionally beautiful gesture of Russia's goodwill, not connecting with anything in the past, but aimed at strenghtening ties with Germany," he said. "That's very wrong."
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