The Russian art scholar Irina Antonowa, president of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and “guardian of looted art”, has died. “Irina Alexandrovna is dead,” said museum director Marina Loschak, according to the Tass state agency on Tuesday. In Germany, Antonova was known as the resolute guardian of the art treasures that Soviet soldiers brought to Moscow after the Second World War. The “booty” was considered to be compensation for war losses that were attributed to looting and pillaging Nazis.
Antonova resigned as museum director in 2013 at the age of 91 and handed over her life’s work to the art scholar Loschak. After 52 years at the head of the internationally known Pushkin Museum, she remained its president – and was also present at larger events until the end. Antonova began her work in the Pushkin Museum in 1945 under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
It was part of her legacy that a Russian law against Germany’s protests codified the “relocated cultural goods” as reparation. The treasures also include the Troy finds by Heinrich Schliemann and the Eberswalder gold treasure. “A return would be the beginning of a revolution in art collections all over the world,” Antonova once said. She pointed out that museums around the world are full of art treasures from marches of conquest and wars.
Antonova, born on March 20, 1922 in Moscow, had lived in Germany for several years as a child and spoke German. She always resisted reports that she had chosen looted art herself after the war. On her 90th birthday in 2012, the woman, who often appeared like a sergeant in her strict costumes, said that she saw no end to her museum work.
Russian columnists praised the art scholar as a world-class expert who, with great cleverness and inexhaustible energy, confidently and uncompromisingly led one of the most important Russian museums. During the Soviet era, Antonova organized the first show with works by the surrealist Salvador Dalí. After the end of the Cold War, she opened the secret depots with looted art after Moscow had already returned large quantities to the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden during the GDR era.