Berlin’s lost Renaissance sculptures rediscovered in the Pushkin Museum

The Art Newspaper19 May 2016
By Catherine Hickley

The 59 sculptures were among treasures seized by Stalin’s “Trophy Brigades” after the Second World War

Mino da Fiesole, Portrait of a Young Woman (around 1472, state before 1945). © Archiv SBM. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst.

Art historians have discovered 59 Italian Renaissance sculptures missing from Berlin’s collections since the Second World War in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, according to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. They include works by Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Andrea del Verrocchio, Francesco Laurana and Mino da Fiesole that were housed in the city’s Bode Museum—then known as the Kaiser Friedrich Museum—before the war.

The sculptures were among the Berlin art treasures stashed in a flak tower in Friedrichshain in the east of the city to protect them from bombs during the war. In May 1945, the building suffered two fires and many of the works were presumed destroyed, including a Caravaggio painting of St. Matthew. Whatever was left was seized by Soviet troops and transported back to Moscow.

For decades, German art historians had no way of knowing what was lost in the fire and what survived in the Soviet Union. But since 2005, dozens of German and Russian museums have been cooperating on a number of projects to investigate the fate of art missing from both countries. The discovery of the 59 sculptures was revealed at a symposium in Florence on 3 May.

"Most of the sculptures were damaged, some are even in fragments," says Neville Rowley, curator of Italian Renaissance art at the Bode Museum, who was part of the research team. "They can’t currently be shown because of the state they are in. But there are plans to exhibit the sculptures at the Pushkin Museum after they’ve been restored."

The team last year announced the discovery of one of the Donatello sculptures, a badly fire-damaged bronze of John the Baptist, and said a partial restoration may be possible. Rowley says: “What we have found is that the sculptures that survived the fire in the flak tower were made of marble, bronze and terracotta, but sculptures made of stucco or wood did not. Paintings, such as the one by Caravaggio, were most likely also destroyed simply because of the material they were made of."

After the Second World War, the Red Army’s “Trophy Brigades” looted more than 2.6 million works of art from eastern Germany, viewing these as reparations for the wholesale looting and destruction of Soviet cultural heritage conducted by German troops during the war. In 1958, in a gesture of friendship to the communist East German regime, the Soviet Union returned some 1.5 million works to Germany, among them the friezes of the Pergamon Altar.

As many as one million art objects remain in Russia and other former Soviet states, as well as millions of books and extensive archive material. Germany views these as its property, but Russia has refused to return them, considering them compensation for Russian losses. In 1996, the Duma passed a law declaring them Russian property.

While political efforts to find a solution to the question of ownership have so far failed, the joint research projects at the museum level aim to locate, identify, restore and eventually exhibit the missing treasures.

• With additional reporting by Julia Michalska
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